* BBC taken off air, equipment looted
* Broadcaster says disappointed by interference
* Journalist union condemns media clampdown
(Adds Reporters Without Borders comment)
By Abdi Sheikh and Abdi Guled MOGADISHU, April 9 (Reuters) - Somalia’s al Shabaab rebels said on Friday they had taken the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) off the air in regions they controlled because it spread Christian propaganda.
The insurgents, who profess loyalty to al Qaeda and are fighting a deadly insurgency in the anarchic Horn of Africa nation, also said they had looted transmission equipment belonging to the BBC.
“Starting from today all BBC FM stations in the areas controlled by al Shabaab will be off air and their equipment will be taken over,” the group said in an emailed statement.
“BBC is owned by England and it spreads (a) colonial and Christian agenda in the Muslim world. BBC fights Islam ... it is against the Islamic administration in Somalia.”
The BBC broadcasts its London-based programming onto its own local FM frequencies in Somalia and local stations relay its signal. The BBC does not have any studios in Somalia.
Jerry Timmins, BBC Head of International Relations & Africa Region, said, “We are disappointed in this interference with our broadcasts in Somalia as in the end, it is the Somali people who are most affected.”
He said the broadcaster had no warning the rebel group intended to close down its relay stations and added that the BBC sought to represent all views in its broadcasts.
“The BBC speaks to all sides in Somalia — including al-Shabaab — and reports events as they unfold. It is essential for the people of Somalia that the BBC is allowed to continue to report accurately and impartially on the situation in the country without undue interference from anyone,” he said.
The National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ) has decried a crackdown on press freedom in recent weeks and called the clampdown on the BBC an act of repression.
“This...is a strong demonstration of the gravity of media repression by al Shabaab. We are very concerned at the obvious intent...to get tough on journalists and media organisations that have taken an independent attitude of reporting,” NUSOJ said.
Somalis living in al Shabaab-held territories confirmed that BBC had gone off air on local frequencies but said programming could still be picked up on short wave.
Al Shabaab controls huge swathes of central and southern Somalia and has left the government, backed by the West, in control of little more than a few streets in Mogadishu.
Al Shabaab has already banned music from radio stations in areas they control and allows only Arabic Koranic chanting.
Paris-based journalist rights group Reporters Without Borders also condemned al Shabaab’s action against BBC, and U.S.-funded Voice of America.
“Al Shabaab has today added another misdeed to its long list of violations of free expression.” (Additional reporting by Sahra Abdi in Nairobi; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by George Obulutsa and Matthew Jones)