5 dead as troops fire on Somalis

The Baltimore Sun

MOGADISHU, Somalia -- Thousands of angry Somalis rioted yesterday over rising food prices and the collapse of the nation's currency, culminating in clashes with government troops and armed shopkeepers that killed at least five protesters, witnesses and officials said.

Shops and markets throughout Mogadishu quickly closed as protesters, including many women and children, stoned storefronts and chanted slogans accusing traders of cheating them.

"I've never demonstrated before, but I'm not ashamed because if you can't eat, you will do whatever you can," said Abdullahi Mohammed, 57, of Mogadishu. "Before I was eating three times a day, but now sometimes it's not even once."

The Horn of Africa nation's food industry, which thrived previously because of private traders, has been grappling with soaring inflation, spurred by an explosion of counterfeit currency over the past year and the global spike in food prices.

Somalia imports at least 60 percent of its grain, and its local crops were devastated this year by drought and flooding.

As a result, prices for rice, maize, sorghum and other cereals are up 100 percent to 400 percent over the past year. A sack of rice that sold for $32 only a month ago is going for $52.

Also, the nation's currency, the shilling, has lost half its value against the U.S. dollar in the past year, requiring consumers to carry sacks of money just to buy common grocery items.

Somalia joins a growing list of African countries where rising food prices have led to violence, including Cameroon, Burkina Faso and Egypt.

Yesterday's riots followed a smaller outbreak in the Somali capital last month. In recent days, unrest returned when shop owners, who had been pressuring customers to pay in dollars, said they no longer would accept old shillings.

Consumers blame traders for exploiting the current crisis, but retailers insist their own suppliers will no longer accept Somalia's older bills, some of which date from before 1991.

Traders fault the government for failing to address the violence and lawlessness that have driven hundreds of importers to flee the country, and for doing nothing to stop the printing of fake currency. Critics say government officials might be linked to the counterfeiting rings.

During a news conference yesterday, Mogadishu Mayor Mohammed Dheere blamed the riots on traders and ordered them to accept all bills.

Lutfi Sheriff Mohammed and Edmund Sanders write for the Los Angeles Times.

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