Somali security forces prevented more than 40 parliamentarians, including U.S. citizens, from leaving the country in the latest altercation between the country's president and parliament, officials said Tuesday.
The U.S. expressed concerns over the move and said several parliamentarians were threatened with weapons and that at least three were physically assaulted. The U.S. said the Mogadishu government, known as the Transitional Federal Government, is stifling peaceful political discussions and silencing critics.
"This action follows other efforts by the TFG in recent weeks to stifle peaceful political discussion and to silence its critics," the U.S. statement said. "The United States reminds the TFG of the commitment it made to the United Nations Security Council to enhance reconciliation and complete the transitional tasks which include completing the constitutional process that will end the transitional period and bring sovereignty and legitimacy back to Somalia."
The travel ban appears to be a part of a clash between the government and parliament over the president's term. New elections are supposed to be held by August, but the president wants to extend his term without a vote.
Some of the detained parliamentarians were traveling to an election workshop in neighboring Kenya.
Hareed Hassan Ali, a spokesman for the parliamentary committee preparing for new elections, accused President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed's administration of scuttling efforts to hold a free and fair vote.
"We don't suspect but we are sure that the reason behind the government's decision to bar committee members from traveling to Kenya was to foil election preparations," he said. "Ahmed's administration feels that the ground it is standing on is shaking."
A Somali government minister, Abdishakur Sheik Hassan, told Somali media outlets that the lawmakers were stopped at the airport because they did not follow rules, and that the government does not recognize the election committee because it was appointed by an "individual," a reference to the parliament speaker, Sharif Hassan Sheik Aden.
Hassan didn't elaborate.
Somali lawmakers _ who in February extended their own mandate by three years _ have been vowing for months to hold a presidential vote despite the president's objections.
Ahmed's administration has been vigorously pushing for a one-year extension, saying that it needs more time to capitalize on political and security programs.
The two arms of Somalia's fragile government _ the executive and legislature _ have been locked in a dispute over what to do when Ahmed's term expires. Attempts to bridge the difference have so far failed.
Ahmed was elected to a two-year term in 2009 after his opposition group signed a deal with the government. He is a former Islamist who headed an insurgent group that fought for the removal of Ethiopian forces from Somalia.
Ali said that despite Ahmed's desire to stay in office, new elections will be held. Under the country's interim charter, the parliament has the sole power to elect a president.
The international community, which provides the funds for Somalia's government, is split on the need to replace Ahmed.
While the U.N. is pushing for new elections, five East African countries, some of which either share borders with Somalia or have peacekeepers in Mogadishu, recently said they supported the proposal to extend the government's term.
The government spokesman, Abdirahman Omar Osman, said the government is trying to cut a deal with the speaker on the extension issue. Osman said the Cabinet rejected the parliament's three-year extension, so what is needed is a middle ground, possibly one-year extension for both bodies.
(This version CORRECTS Corrects spelling of minister's name to Abdishakur, sted Abdishaku.)