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By Ibrahim Mohamed and Abdi Guled
MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Somalia's hardline al Shabaab insurgents executed two young men in public Sunday after telling a crowd in a rebel-held port that they had confessed to spying.
The United States says the group, which wants to topple President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed's fragile U.N.-backed government and impose its own strict version of Islamic law, is al Qaeda's proxy in the failed Horn of Africa state.
"These two young men were involved in spying against our Islamic administration," Sheikh Suldan, an al Shabaab official, told reporters in Marka, 100 km (62 miles) south of Mogadishu.
"We have been holding them for three months. We investigated and they confessed."
Witnesses said al Shabaab fighters used loudspeakers to summon residents to an open area near the port, where hundreds gathered to watch the grisly spectacle.
Courts run by al Shabaab clerics have ordered executions, floggings and amputations in recent months, mostly in Kismayu further south, but also in rebel-held districts of the capital.
The insurgents have also banned movies, musical ringtones, dancing at wedding ceremonies and playing or watching soccer.
Also Sunday, al Shabaab closed a local non-governmental organisation, ASEP, in Balad Hawa town near the Kenyan border and seized several of its members, residents said. An al Shabaab source said the staff had also been accused of spying.
FIRING SQUAD
One witness in Marka, Ali Hussein, said by telephone that residents were forced to watch the pair killed by firing squad.
"The two teenagers were accused of spying, but we cannot judge if they were guilty for ourselves," Hussein told Reuters.
"One of the boys did not die easily, so about eight masked al Shabaab men went close and opened fire on him. Soon his body looked like chopped-up meat because of the many gunshots."
Fighting in Somalia has killed 19,000 civilians since the start of 2007 and driven 1.5 million from their homes, creating one of the world's worst humanitarian emergencies.
Western security agencies say the drought-ravaged nation has become a safe haven for militants, including foreign jihadists, who are using it to plot attacks across the region and beyond.
Al Shabaab has said it will strike the capitals of Burundi and Uganda in revenge for rocket attacks Thursday by African Union peacekeepers from those countries that killed at least 30 people in and around Mogadishu's Bakara market.
Earlier this month, the insurgent group organised a Koran recital competition for youths in Kismayu and awarded the 17-year-old winner an AK-47 rifle, two hand grenades, a computer and an anti-tank mine as prizes.
The group urged Somali parents to let children learn how to handle weapons and fight what it calls the apostate government.
(Additional reporting by Mohamed Ahmed in Mogadishu and Sahra Abdi in Nairobi; Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Tim Pearce)

Reuters