By Ibrahim Mohamed
MOGADISHU (Reuters) – Somali insurgents detonated two suicide car bombs at an African Union (AU) peacekeeping base in Mogadishu on Thursday in what the rebels called revenge for this week’s U.S. killing of a top al Qaeda suspect.
A Reuters reporter saw six wounded soldiers being carried away from the site of the explosions, some bleeding heavily, while thick smoke poured into the sky over Somalia’s capital.
Witnesses said AU troops had died, along with some Somalis who had been waiting for medical treatment at the AU base, but the number of casualties was not immediately clear.
It looked to be the worst attack on the peacekeepers since 11 Burundians were killed and 28 wounded in February by two suicide bombers — one in a car, one with a suicide vest — who infiltrated their base. It also followed one of the most violent months the city has seen in 20 years.
Western security agencies say lawless Somalia has become a safe haven for militants, including foreign jihadists, who are using it to plot attacks across the region and beyond.
Al Shabaab’s spokesman, Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage, said Thursday’s attacks were to avenge the death of Kenyan-born Salah Ali Saleh Nabhan, who was killed in southern Somalia on Monday during a raid by U.S. special forces.
“We have got our revenge for our brother Nabhan. Two suicide car bombs targeting the AU base, praise Allah,” he told Reuters.
“It took place at noon on the 27th of Ramadan, the best blessing. We knew the infidel government and AU troops planned to attack us after the holy month. This is a message to them.”
Nabhan, 28, had been allied with al Shabaab, which Washington accuses of being al Qaeda’s proxy in Somalia.
Thursday’s attack is likely to deter African nations including Nigeria and Djibouti that have agreed to send soldiers to reinforce the AU mission — but have yet to do so.
Witnesses said two vehicles with U.N. markings entered the coastal airport base of the 5,000-strong AMISOM mission (African Union Mission in Somalia) unchallenged before blowing up. The force is comprised of troops from Burundi and Uganda.
The AU’s special representative for Somalia, Nicolas Bwakira, condemned the attack in a statement.
“At least two bombs exploded at the force headquarters at about midday … causing injuries and damage to AMISOM peacekeepers, facilities and equipment,” he said.
“Despite this barbaric attack, the African Union remains resolute in its commitment to support the Somali people and the … government in their peace and reconciliation efforts.”
Local man Farah Hassan said two U.N.-marked cars drove into the base followed by two pick-ups carrying government troops.
“We thought they were real U.N. cars carrying white people, but moments later deafening thunder shook the ground,” he told Reuters. “The area was covered with flames and clouds of smoke.”
The bombings also came just hours after al Shabaab issued demands in return for the release of a French security consultant the group is holding hostage, including an immediate end to French support for Somalia’s fragile government.
The French hostage is one of two security consultants kidnapped by gunmen in Mogadishu in July. His colleague managed to escape on August 26.
In return for his release, al Shabaab demanded the “immediate cessation of any political or military support to the apostate government of Somalia and the withdrawal of all its security advisers in Somalia,” the rebels said in a statement.
They demanded the withdrawal of the AU troops supporting President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed’s administration and the departure of French warships trying to stamp out piracy in Somali waters.
The insurgents’ statement also called for the release of mujahideen prisoners in countries to be named later.
Fighting in Somalia has killed more than 18,000 civilians since the start of 2007 and left another 1.5 million homeless.