Somali Insurgents Fire at Plane Leaving Mogadishu With U.S. Congressman Aboard

Six mortar shells were fired toward the airport in the Somali capital of Mogadishu as a plane carrying a U.S. congressman took off, an airport employee at the control tower said. Video by AP
By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 14, 2009

MOMBASA, Kenya, April 13 -- Insurgents fired mortar rounds Monday at a plane carrying a U.S. congressman as he departed Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, marking a dramatic end to the first visit by a U.S. official to the volatile city in years.

Rep. Donald M. Payne (D-N.J.) flew into the capital flanked by armed bodyguards and drove around the bomb-blasted seaside city visiting Somalia's newly elected president, the moderate Islamist Sharif Ahmed, and other Somali officials.

As the privately chartered plane took off from the airport hours later, insurgents fired mortar rounds at it, while Payne and the other passengers remained oblivious to the danger, the congressman said. He learned about the incident only after landing in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya.

The mortar rounds killed at least five Somali civilians on the ground, local residents said. The insurgent group al-Shabab, which has ties to al-Qaeda, asserted responsibility for the attack.

"It was not exactly a typical day in the life," Payne said, speaking from the InterContinental Hotel in Nairobi on Monday night. "But we felt it was safe enough to go in. We have no regrets about going in."

The visit had been planned for weeks and just happened to coincide with the high seas military operation that freed an American captain held hostage by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean for five days. In what appeared to many Somalis as a bewildering show of force against four wayward young men, U.S. Navy snipers killed three of the pirates

Payne said Somalia's fragile transitional government supported the action. "The government feels they are now the weakest link in the fight against piracy," he said. "The pirates have money and cartels who support them. The Shabab, they have support from the outside to support them. The government is the only entity of these three that is virtually getting no financial or logistical or diplomatic support."

The rampant piracy off Somalia's coast is just one of an array of problems facing the nation's fragile, four-month-old transitional government, which barely controls a few blocks of the capital, much less the vast coastal waters. The United States has been concerned for years that the volatile Horn of Africa nation could become a base for al-Qaeda, and the government is now struggling to contain al-Shabab.

The group has labeled Ahmed -- who was once part of a broader coalition that included al-Shabab -- as a puppet of Western nations. The government relies on a coalition of clan militias to battle al-Shabab, rather than a national army or police, which are still being cobbled together.

Ahmed, a widely respected religious leader for many Somalis, is trying to win the hearts and minds of young, jobless men who have never known much besides the rule of the AK-47. Faced with few options, they are joining al-Shabab or becoming pirates, embracing a daring but fashionable way of life that has made many Somalis millionaires almost overnight. The illegal business has brought tens of millions of dollars into northern coastal towns.

In the northern Somali town of Garad, where the three pirates are expected to be buried if their bodies are returned, Mohamed Yasin, a teacher, said that "the sniper shot is not the solution" to Somalia's troubles. He said most Somalis do not support the pirates, who have justified their attacks on ships by alleging that foreign countries are fishing illegally and dumping nuclear waste in Somali waters.

Still, Yasin and others said they viewed the U.S. operation, involving three warships, as a heavy-handed solution to four young men armed with pistols and AK-47 assault rifles. Pirates have so far not executed any hostages, instead demanding ransoms. "They were not going to kill that captain," said Yasin, who said the long-term solution to Somalia's troubles is for such young men to have career paths beyond piracy.

On Monday, Payne said as much after touring Mogadishu, which is filled with crumbling, mortar-blasted buildings. "The city in sections looked very bombed out, just rubble -- if they had a sort of public works program, I think the peace dividend would show greatly," he said. "It could put these young men, these pirates, to work."

More broadly, he said, dealing with piracy means engaging the messy problem of establishing a functioning government in Somalia, rather than sending more Navy ships to patrol the high seas.

"I hope the Obama administration will take a strong look at Somalia and put it in the category of Afghanistan and have strong support for nation-building," he said. "I think there is an opportunity now, and I hope the administration takes advantage."

Special correspondent Mohamed Ibrahim in Nairobi contributed to this report.

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