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Two prominent Somali journalists are assassinated in Mogadishu

Two prominent radio journalists, one a McClatchy Newspapers freelance correspondent, were assassinated within hours of each other on Saturday in Somalia’s bloody capital, Mogadishu, in what colleagues said was an attempt to silence the country’s independent media.

The first targeted killings of journalists in Somalia in recent memory claimed two leading figures at HornAfrik, a private media company whose radio broadcasts often focus on the plight of civilians caught in an increasingly deadly conflict between Somali government forces and Islamist insurgents.

Mahad Ahmed Elmi, the 30-year-old co-host of a popular morning talk show and a McClatchy freelancer, was shot three times in the head by two unknown gunmen as he arrived for work around 7:30 a.m. The killing occurred just 200 yards from the entrance to the radio station.

Hours later, HornAfrik’s co-founder, Ali Iman Sharmarke, was returning from Elmi’s burial when a remote-controlled bomb detonated under his car, killing him instantly, witnesses said.

It was unclear who was behind the killings. In a telephone interview shortly before his death, Sharmarke said that Elmi’s interviews with civilian victims of the conflict had angered pro-government groups as well as Islamist supporters in recent months, and that several HornAfrik reporters had received death threats.

In words that would prove devastatingly prescient, Sharmarke said: “We are in the crossfire - all of us journalists.

“Both sides didn’t like Mahad advocating for the voiceless. We cannot pinpoint (the killer), but my suspicion is there are some people who wanted to silence him.”

Somali government officials condemned the attacks, according to local reports.

As a freelance reporter for McClatchy’s bureau in Nairobi, Kenya, Elmi contributed to more than 20 stories since November 2006. He helped cover Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia, the arrival of a secular interim government and the ensuing, Iraq-style insurgency that has plunged the Horn of Africa nation into its gravest crisis in more than a decade.

McClatchy foreign editor Roy Gutman said Elmi’s dispatches helped ensure that his long-suffering homeland of Somalia, which hasn’t had a functioning government in 16 years, didn’t fade into obscurity.

“I have rarely encountered somebody as completely professional as he was in such an incredibly difficult situation, who just filed excellent reports consistently,” Gutman said. “His passion for the story was undimmed. This is a real loss.”

In his last report for McClatchy, on July 13, Elmi interviewed a Mogadishu resident who described government troops firing “indiscriminately” down the streets and alleys of Bakara marketplace, a crowded section of town where insurgents hide among civilians.

Human rights groups have criticized Somali government forces and their Ethiopian allies for a reckless counterinsurgency campaign that has killed hundreds. Earlier this month, U.N. officials reported that 23 civilians died and 50 were injured in one week of clashes in Mogadishu.

Tens of thousands of people have fled the capital since January, many huddling in desperate camps on the outskirts of the city. The violence has worsened over the past month even as a national summit aimed at political reconciliation meets in Mogadishu.

The government has repeatedly cracked down on independent media houses that air critical reports. In June, authorities briefly closed HornAfrik and two other radio stations that it accused of “supporting terrorism.” On Friday, police stormed the Shabelle radio station, temporarily forcing it off the air and arresting nine journalists.

On Saturday, radio stations in Mogadishu went off the air for a period of mourning. Civic leaders said the killings would send a clear message to reporters already working in some of the world’s most difficult conditions.

“No question, this is to silence the media,” said Abdullahi Shirwa, a prominent civic activist. “Everyone will be afraid to report, or they will just leave Mogadishu.”

Elmi, who was buried soon after his death according to Somali custom, is survived by two children by his former wife, from whom he was separated. He was planning to remarry on Aug. 20.

Trim, bespectacled and - like so many professional Somali men - sharply dressed, Elmi co-hosted “Mogadishu This Morning” for six years. With his nasal voice and meticulous delivery, Elmi became as much a fixture in the seaside capital as morning tea - missing only two broadcasts in all that time, colleagues said.

“Mahad’s murder is another reminder that all over the world every day brave reporters are risking their lives to find the truth and report it,” said McClatchy Washington Bureau Chief John Walcott. “It’s a tragic loss for journalism, for his country and for McClatchy. Our thoughts and prayers are with those who loved him.”