MOGADISHU, Somalia - Masked gunmen stormed a mosque Wednesday in western Somalia, killing at least five Pakistani Muslim clerics in a country already bloodied by an Islamic insurgency and where al-Qaida is believed to be gaining a foothold. Authorities tried to find out who carried out the execution-style murders, and why.
The victims belonged to the Islamic missionary movement Tablighi Jamaat, Pakistan's foreign office spokesman Abdul Basit told The Associated Press in Islamabad. Some extremists, including shoe bomber Richard Reid, have been linked to the group but Tablighi Jamaat is believed to be apolitical and nonviolent. Some of its members travel the world, preaching to fellow Muslims.
"They have almost a rule of not discussing politics. They prefer to avoid it," said Ghaffar Hussain of Quilliam Foundation, a London-based think-tank . "Their stance is quite conservative, quite puritanical. But they themselves are not ... extremist."
Police surrounded the mosque after the horrific attack in town of Galkayo and said they were searching for suspects. No one immediately claimed responsibility.
The gunmen entered the Tawfiq Mosque right after morning prayers, forced six Pakistani preachers and a Somali man out, and opened fire, said Ismail Mohamud Hassan, a witness.
"Five of them died on the spot," Hassan told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from Galkayo, 470 miles (750 kilometres) northwest of the capital, Mogadishu. "Two others were injured - one Pakistani and a Somali."
Nahar Hussein Gutale, who lives near the mosque, rushed from his home after hearing gunshots and saw several men fleeing and five men lying in a pool of blood.
"They were screaming," he said. "They were on their last breath when I arrived at the scene. They died shortly after."
He said police quickly arrived and fired into the air to disperse a crowd of onlookers before loading the corpses onto a pickup truck and speeding away.
The victims were among 10 Pakistanis in the mosque who belonged to Tablighi Jamaat. All were from Dera Ghazi Khan in southern Punjab, Basit said.
The bloodshed highlights the violent instability in Somalia, which has been caught up in vicious disputes for nearly two decades over ancient clan loyalties, religion and government. The country's lawlessness has spread security fears around region and raised concerns that al-Qaida is making inroads in the Horn of Africa.
Somalia's Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmake condemned the attack.
"It is a despicable and barbaric act to kill Muslim people at a mosque," he said.
One of Somalia's extremist Islamic groups, al-Shabab, which holds sway over much of Somalia, also condemned the killings. Galkayo is far north of where al-Shabab holds the most power.
"It is part of the targeted killings against Muslims," said Sheik Ali Mohamud Rage, the group's spokesman.
Pakistan's acting ambassador in neighbouring Kenya, Manzoor Chaudhry, said the exact death toll was unclear because there have been conflicting figures. Unconfirmed reports said six or seven men may have died in Wednesday's attack.
Travelling Somali clerics preach at Tawfiq Mosque and sometimes arrive with foreigners, mainly from Pakistan and Afghanistan, said Sheik Salad Dufan, a Galkayo resident.
Somalia has been ravaged by violence and anarchy since warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, then turned on each other. A moderate Islamist was elected president in January in hopes that he could unite the country's feuding factions, but the violence has continued unabated.
The government and African Union peacekeepers hold only a few blocks of Mogadishu. Al-Shabab, which has foreign fighters in its ranks, operates openly in the capital and seeks to impose a strict form of Islam in Somalia. The U.S. considers al-Shabab a terrorist group with links to al-Qaida, but al-Shabab denies that.
During a tour of Africa, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton last week said the Obama administration would boost military supplies and other aid to the Somali government and the peacekeepers.
Associated Press writers Ashraf Khan in Islamabad, Pakistan and Elizabeth A. Kennedy, Tom Maliti and Malkhadir M. Muhumed in Nairobi, Kenya contributed to this report.