Islamist militants attacked a United Nations compound in the Somali capital of Mogadishu on Wednesday, blasting their way into the site before opening fire on security guards.
Islamist militants carried out their first major assault for years on a U.N. compound in the Somali capital Mogadishu on Wednesday, dealing a blow to fragile security gains that have allowed a slow return of foreign aid workers and diplomats.
A car bomb exploded outside the gate of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) base and attackers then ran inside and opened fire on security guards, U.N. sources said. The al Qaeda-linked Islamist group al Shabaab claimed responsibility.
The African Union peacekeeping force, which sent soldiers and armoured vehicles to the site, said the compound was under control of friendly troops after a gunbattle that witnesses said lasted more than 90 minutes.
It was not immediately clear whether any U.N. officials were caught up in the battle or whether anyone was killed or wounded. Militants have launched grenade strikes and similar low-level attacks on U.N. bases in the past, but no assault of this scale.
It was the first notable attack on U.N. premises by al Shabaab since they were driven out of Mogadishu in fighting with AU and Somali govenrment forces about two years ago.
One U.N. official said some Western nations that have been keen to support the Western-leaning government elected last year had played down dangers posed by al Shabaab and its ability to infiltrate the security forces and attack the capital.
“This is part of the consequence of over-optimism in some Western nations that has overshadowed the need to look at deeper problems before rolling out any kind of U.N. mission,” said the official, who follows Somalia closely. He said the government had not done enough to overhaul its security forces.
Britain opened an embassy in Mogadishu’s fortified airport in April but said the militant threat remained. U.N. agencies have only recently started building up offices and international staff in Somalia after some relative security improvements.
The UNDP compound is located just a few hundred metres (yards) from the airport, which serves as the main base for the African Union peacekeeping force battling insurgents across southern Somalia.
A U.N. spokesman told Reuters that staff in a neighbouring building were in lockdown and said heavy exchanges of gunfire rung out for about 90 minutes. The Islamist group also said fighting lasted more than an hour after the attack was launched.
“Inside the compound are several clueless foreigners who were lulled into a false sense of security by a strong disinformation campaign,” al Shabaab said on its Twitter feed @HSMPRESS1, before its fighters apparently lost the battle.
There was no immediate confirmation from the United Nations regarding how many foreign and local staff were in the building at the time, though one official said it was normally staffed by dozens of employees.
Early witness reports had indicated a suicide bomber had blown himself up, and subsequent accounts referred to a car bomb.
The Somali government condemned the attack and offered “deepest sympathy to all victims” without giving details.
“Today all Somalia stands shoulder to shoulder with UNSOM,” Prime Minister Abdi Farah Shirdon Saaid said on Twitter, referring to the new U.N. Somalia assistance programme UNSOM.
Bystanders reported several smaller blasts inside the compound during the gunfight, though it was not immediately clear whether these were from the gunmen blowing themselves up or from other explosives.
The raid appeared to be a copycat of a strike on Mogadishu’s law courts in April, when militant gunmen detonated suicide vests during a gunbattle with security forces.
AU forces and government troops drove Islamist al Shabaab rebels out of the coastal capital in 2011, but militants have kept up guerrilla-style attacks from rural bases.
The overthrow of a dictator in 1991 plunged Somalia into two decades of violent turmoil, first at the hands of clan warlords and then Islamist militants, who have steadily lost ground since 2011 under pressure from the AU military offensive.
Date created : 2013-06-19