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Nun, Bodyguard Slain in Somalia

An official suspects disgruntled workers or Muslim fundamentalists are to blame for deaths.

September 18, 2006|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

MOGADISHU, Somalia — Gunmen on Sunday killed an Italian nun and her Somalian bodyguard outside a nursing school and children's hospital where she had taught for four years.

The killings shattered a two-month lull in political violence in Mogadishu and revived security concerns just as several Western humanitarian organizations were mulling a return to the Somalian capital.

The attack also was a setback for the Conservative Council of Islamic Courts, which seized control of Mogadishu from U.S.-backed warlords in June. Islamic officials, who are widely credited with restoring security to the capital, have been encouraging United Nations and other international aid groups to resume their assistance in Mogadishu.

According to a recent public statement by the Islamic courts council, there had been no reported political killings in Mogadishu since June, when Swedish photographer Martin Adler was shot while covering an anti-Western demonstration.

"This sends a very bad signal," said Mario Raffaelli, Italy's special envoy here.

Somalia has been without a functioning government since 1991, when the collapse of Mohamed Siad Barre's regime allowed rival warlords to carve up the Horn of Africa country.

Islamic courts council officials condemned Sunday's attack and said they had captured one of the two suspected gunmen.

The motive of the shootings was under investigation. However, the chief of security for the courts council, Yusuf Mohammed Siad, said he suspected that the attackers were either disgruntled former employees at the medical facilities or Muslim fundamentalists angry at Pope Benedict XVI.

Last week, the pope quoted a 14th century emperor who referred to some of the teachings of the prophet Muhammad, Islam's founder, as "evil and inhuman." Benedict said Sunday that he was "deeply sorry" for the reaction to his speech.

The nun, identified by a co-worker as Leonella Sgorbati, had been working here for four years as a nursing instructor for International SOS, an aid group. In June, she oversaw the graduation of 80 Somalian nurses and helped them find jobs.

"She brought hope to so many young people here," said William Huber, an SOS official in Somalia.

Officials said Sgorbati, 64, who was wearing a nun's habit, and the SOS security guard, Mohammed Mahmoud, 50, were ambushed as they crossed a dirt road separating two guarded health facilities. Both were shot multiple times.

In an interview shortly before the attack, the courts council's chief foreign affairs official, Ibrahim Hassan Addou, warned against taking security for granted. "There is peace and security in Mogadishu, but there are still risks," he said. "You must be careful."

Some observers speculated that the attackers were linked to former warlords or to people within Somalia's transitional government, which has been at odds with the courts council. Others blamed hard-line Muslim extremists who oppose a foreign presence in Somalia.

Aid groups expressed dismay. Officials from Doctors Without Borders are visiting Mogadishu this week to evaluate whether to launch a children's clinic, but Sunday's attack raises red flags, officials said.

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