MOGADISHU (AFP) — Somalia's hardline Islamist militia, Al-Shebab, has issued an ultimatum ordering all traffic in and out of Mogadishu airport to cease as of Tuesday.
The extremist group argued in a statement posted on the Internet and confirmed to AFP by its leader Mukhtar Robow that the airport was one of the main tools of Ethiopia's "occupation" of Somalia.
"The airport is used by Ugandan and Burundian mercenaries and there is a plan to bring more troops who could take part in the occupation of Somalia," the organisation said.
The airport is used for both commercial and military flights and is the main base for the Ugandan contingent of the African Union peacekeepers in the lawless country, who were reinforced by Burundians earlier this year.
Two Ugandan peacekeepers were killed over the past two days, in one of the worst spate of attacks against the AU force since it was first deployed early last year.
"The airport is generating money that helps Ethiopian troops get revenue, the premise is under the direct control of Ethiopian troops," Al-Shebab said.
"The facility is also being used by US and Israeli secret services and Somali religious personalities are being harassed at the airport without reason," it charged.
"Therefore, the Shebab are warning Somali businessmen that the airport is officially closed from September 16," the statement said, adding that the warning was addressed to airline managers in particular.
"Any plane attempting to land at the airport will be regarded as an enemy combatant and would have to assume responsibility for anything that happens to it," Al-Shebab added.
The organisation did not elaborate on what action it could take against planes using the airport beyond the deadline, but foreign intelligence sources told AFP in Nairobi that the militia was believed to have recently acquired more surface-to-air missiles.
The African Union refused to comment on the threat by Al-Shebab but the Somali police brushed it off.
"They are day-dreaming, things won't happen this way. This is propaganda to undermine the airport's operations and security," Somali police spokesman Abdullahi Hasan Barise told AFP.
The Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which briefly controlled large parts of the country before being ousted by Ethiopian troops supporting a provisional government in late 2006, also rejected Al-Shebab's threat.
"Considering the importance of the airport for the Somali people, we certainly don't agree with the idea of closing the airport and we call on the brothers who issued this statement to review it," ICU spokesman Abdirahin Ise Ado said in a statement.
Al-Shebab was initially the armed youth wing of the ICU but after the Islamist movement was defeated by the US-backed Ethiopians, the political leadership fled into exile and those fighters left behind radicalised.
A closure of Mogadishu airport would further complicate business in the troubled Horn of Africa country, where conflict, drought and rising food prices are also threatening a unprecedented humanitarian disaster.
Pirate attacks on ships bringing food aid and supplies by sea have further complicated the delivery of humanitarian relief.
Mogadishu international airport, which is located next to the capital's main harbour, was closed in 1995 after peacekeepers who controlled the area for three years withdrew.
The main warlords who ruled the country then disagreed over the sharing of income generated by the airport.
It was rebuilt and reopened by the ICU on January 14, 2007. It closed briefly following an Ethiopian air raid jets in June last year.
The 12-year closure of Mogadishu airport led to the opening of a score of smaller airports, which are used notably for khat (mild narcotic leaf) trade and are controlled by militia.
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