Somali media house says troops shoot at office

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MOGADISHU, Sept 18 (Reuters) - Somalia's independent Shabelle media house said government troops surrounded its Mogadishu office today and opened fire at the building.

Interim government officials could not immediately be reached for comment on the incident, which came after security forces arrested 18 staff at the broadcaster on Saturday.

''They are right outside the gate. They have been firing at our building for nearly two hours now,'' Shabelle acting manager Jafar Kukay told Reuters by telephone from inside the office.

''Some of the employees and I hit the deck ... others ran upstairs. I do not know whether they are hurt or not.'' The interim government's relations with independent media houses have been rocky since it and its Ethiopian army backers routed an Islamist movement from the capital over the New Year.

Islamist remnants have been blamed for an insurgency of roadside bombs, assassinations and suicide blasts since then -- and top officials have accused local broadcasters of bias, of stoking tension, backing terrorists and opposing the government.

Shabelle and two other independent outlets, HornAfrik and IQK Koranic Radio, were briefly banned and taken off air twice, in January and in June, prompting criticism from press freedom watchdogs.

In the latest dispute, security forces stormed the Shabelle office in central Mogadishu on Saturday, taking 18 employees to a police station for questioning. They were later released.

''We do not know why they are targeting us,'' Kukay said. ''On Saturday, they said a grenade was thrown at them from the Shabelle building. But now I do not know what they want.'' Also today, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) accused the interim administration -- the impoverished country's 14th attempt at central rule -- of persecuting reporters.

''Many Mogadishu-based journalists have been forced to flee the country due to the ongoing intimidation of journalists,'' Joel Simon, the CPJ's executive director, said in a statement.

''We call on the government to stop this harassment and to move its forces away from the main gates of the Shabelle Media Network offices.'' The CPJ says six Somali reporters have been killed so far this year in direct relation to their work, making it the second deadliest nation for journalists after Iraq.

Last month the co-founder of HornAfrik, Ali Iman Sharmarke, was killed by a landmine in the capital while driving back from the funeral of a murdered journalist colleague.

REUTERS ARB VC1658

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