Friday, September 18, 2009

Somali deaths 'will not deter AU'

The African Union (AU) has vowed to continue its mission in Somalia, despite the killing of 14 peacekeepers in suicide blasts claimed by Islamists.

The dead included the deputy commander of the AU force in Somalia. Shelling after the double bombing left at least 13 people dead, mostly civilians, witnesses say. Spokesman Maj Barigye Ba-hoku said the AU would continue to work with "peace-loving Somalis", however he admitted that the mission was "complicated". "We do not run away when the situation worsens," said Lt Col Felix Kulayigye, a spokesman for the Ugandan military, which contributes about half of the 5,000-strong AU force. "We go there hoping for the best and expecting the worst. If it's good, we'd be glad, but if it's bad, we'd adjust accordingly to deal with it," he said.

The peacekeepers are helping to protect the weak, UN-backed government in its battle against Islamist insurgents. Burundi is the only other country to have sent peacekeepers to Somalia. Its senior officer in Somalia, Maj Gen Juvenal Niyonguruza, was among the dead. The BBC's Prime Ndikumagenge in Burundi says the government has yet to comment on the deaths. Other countries, such as Nigeria, have promised to contribute troops but these have not arrived. The UN has also said it will take over the mission - at an unspecified date.

A security official said two white vehicles with UN logos, but packed with explosives, drove into the AU base near the Mogadishu airport before blowing up.

Black smoke

The Islamist al-Shabab group said the attacks were revenge for a US raid on Monday. This reportedly killed Kenyan-born al-Qaeda suspect Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, who was wanted by the US for attacks in Kenya. "We have got our revenge for our brother Nabhan. Two suicide car bombs targeting the AU base, praise Allah," al-Shabab spokesman Ali Mohamud Rage told Reuters news agency.

An hour after the blasts, the BBC's Mohammed Olad Hassan saw missiles fired from the base near the airport towards Islamist-held parts of Mogadishu. Witnesses say this left 13 people dead and 30 wounded. Our reporter says the suicide explosions rocked a large area of the capital. As soon as he heard them, he went to the roof of his house and saw palls of black smoke in the air.

A security official, who wished to remain anonymous, said the soldiers at the gate had assumed the vehicles were on UN business and let them enter the base. "When the cars entered, one of them sped toward a petrol depot and exploded. The other one exploded in a nearby area," he said. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned the blast in the "strongest terms". US officials say Nabhan was killed on Monday in a US military raid in southern Somalia. He was wanted in connection with the 2002 attacks on a hotel and an Israeli airliner in his home city of Mombasa. It is believed he fled to Somalia after the attacks and was working with al-Shabab, which the US sees as al-Qaeda's proxy in Somalia.

Al-Shabab and its allies control most of southern and central Somalia, while the government, helped by the AU force, just runs parts of Mogadishu. The country has not had a functioning central government since 1991, leading to a complete breakdown of law and order both on land and in recent years in Somali waters.

President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, a moderate Islamist and former insurgent, was chosen in January after UN-brokered peace talks. He has vowed to implement Sharia but al-Shabab accuses him of being a Western puppet. Years of fighting and anarchy have left some three million people - half the population - needing food aid.

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