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Somalia militants hit African Union base; 9 dead

Shabab militants say the suicide attack on the peacekeepers' base in Mogadishu was retaliation for the U.S. strike this week in southern Somalia that killed an Al Qaeda fugitive.

September 18, 2009|Edmund Sanders

NAIROBI, KENYA — In swift retaliation for the U.S. killing this week of a suspected Al Qaeda fugitive in Somalia, insurgents attacked the main African Union peacekeeping base in Mogadishu with twin truck bombs Thursday, killing at least nine people, including four AU soldiers.

Suicide bombers attempted to infiltrate the heavily guarded seaside base by impersonating U.N. personnel, AU officials said.

Among the wounded were unidentified senior Somali government officials, who were visiting the base, and the newly arrived African Union force commander, Ugandan Maj. Gen. Nathan Mugisha, who suffered minor injuries, AU and government officials said.

Five of the dead appeared to be Somalis, but AU officials said they did not yet know whether they were civilians or assailants. Nine soldiers were evacuated to Nairobi for treatment, AU spokesman Maj. Barigye Ba-Hoku said.

Leaders of the hard-line Somali Islamist group Shabab claimed responsibility, saying the attack was a response to the U.S. strike.

On Monday, Special Forces commandos in helicopters fired at a vehicle carrying six Shabab operatives in a remote village in southern Somalia. All six were killed, among them Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a Kenyan-born fugitive accused of helping to plan and execute strikes against a hotel and an Israeli charter airline in Mombasa, Kenya, in 2002.

"These suicide attacks were revenge for the enemy of God's [America's] killing of Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan and the massacre of Somali civilians by mercenary Ugandan forces," said Shabab spokesman Sheik Ali Mohamoud Rage.

He said five "martyrs" targeted buildings where they believed high-level officials were meeting.

The nearly 5,000 African Union troops in Somalia, mostly from Uganda and Burundi, are engaged in one of the most dangerous missions in the world. They are sorely understaffed and underfunded.

Before Thursday's attack, 33 peacekeepers had been killed in Somalia since the mission's start in early 2007. About 20 have died of disease and accidents, including six who died this summer from a malnutrition-linked disease.

Since Ethiopian troops withdrew from Somalia at the beginning of the year, AU soldiers have borne the brunt of mortar fire and roadside bombings by insurgents.

AU Special Representative for Somalia Nicolas Bwakira called Thursday's attack "barbaric" but said in a statement that "the African Union remains resolute in its commitment to support the Somali people and the transitional federal government in their peace and reconciliation efforts."

AU officials said the bombers' vehicles had "U.N. markings," but they could not say whether they were stolen or disguised SUVs. According to some accounts, one of the vehicles managed to enter the compound.

"Shrapnel flew all over the area," said Yasin Sheik Ali. "I saw smoke rise and peacekeepers opened fire in the sky."

The base, which serves as the force's headquarters, is one of the most heavily guarded places in Mogadishu, the Somali capital. It is adjacent to the airport, sitting amid coastal sand dunes and heavy brush.

Smaller African Union outposts were seen as more vulnerable, including the Burundi base in central Mogadishu where 11 troops were killed in a suicide attack in February.

AU soldiers' primary duties are guarding Mogadishu's airport, seaport and presidential palace, where the transitional government is based. But in recent weeks, AU commanders have expressed their intention to take the offensive in combating the militants, including "preemptive" strikes outside the force's current 8-square-mile zone.

In an interview last month, Mugisha, the AU force commander, said his mission had received "fresh rules of engagement" from AU leaders and that he planned to get tougher on insurgents rather than have his soldiers stay inside bases like "sitting ducks."

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edmund.sanders@ latimes.com

Special correspondents Lutfi Sheriff Mohamed and Mustafa Haji Abdinur in Mogadishu contributed to this report.

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