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Attack on Somali civilians sparks worries of militia's growing boldness

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 27, 2010; 7:37 PM

MOGADISHU, SOMALIA - The ceiling of the Hotel Muna was splattered with burned flesh and pieces of clothing, the remains of two radical Islamist suicide bombers who killed 31 people here Tuesday. The force of the blasts blew out doors and covered mattresses in blood and debris. They also shattered what little sense of security Abullahi Warsame had left.

"We are in the worst chapter of our war," Warsame, the hotel's manager, said as he touched a grapefruit-size bullet hole, one of scores that pocked the walls after a gunbattle with the attackers.

Violence has long riven Somalia. But the carnage at this three-story hotel, painted in soft hues of green and yellow, has triggered a collective dread in the besieged capital that the conflict has entered a dangerous new phase. Over two decades, Warsame has witnessed American airstrikes and warlords battling for territory. But while they have fought year-round, none of Somalia's power seekers had targeted civilians so calculatingly during Islam's holiest month - until now.

"How can they kill during Ramadan?" Warsame demanded, stepping over spent bullet cartridges. "Something like this has never happened."

The al-Qaeda-linked militant group al-Shabab asserted responsibility for the brazen daylight attack, which many Somalis saw as reflecting the growing influence on the militia of foreign jihadists. The tactics and planning, they noted, mirror those used by militants in Baghdad and Kabul, where assaults on civilians during Ramadan have become routine.

"It is very similar to what is happening in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan," said Mohamed Hassan Haad, an influential clan elder from southern Somalia. "The brains behind this are foreign. This is not natural to Somali culture."

For other Somalis, the attack underscored the impotence of the U.S.-backed Somali transitional government and the helplessness that has enveloped Mogadishu. It unfolded inside government-controlled territory, within walking distance of Villa Somalia, the presidential palace, and it took only two assailants disguised in military uniforms to devastate a hotel known for housing government officials, military commanders and lawmakers, many with their own bodyguards.

"I am expecting al-Shabab to overtake the city and the whole country," said Mussa Jama Abshir, whose family has owned the hotel for four decades. "They are powerful. This is the reality on the ground."

Government turf shrinking

It has been a week of mayhem in Mogadishu, a city accustomed to round-the-clock mortar attacks and fierce battles that have killed hundreds and compelled many more to flee their homes. A day before the hotel was attacked, al-Shabab declared a "massive final war" against the fragile government and an African Union peacekeeping force that is preventing it from being toppled.

Over the past few days, front lines have been pushed back, shrinking the sliver of territory the government controls. Clashes have erupted along the Muka al-Mukarama, the main road that connects Villa Somalia and government ministries with the airport.

On Friday, pickups loaded with gunmen and minibuses filled with fleeing Somalis sped through intersections to evade bullets fired from al-Shabab positions. African Union armored vehicles secured the Parliament building, a key target of the militants. Nearby, a patch of earth was covered with tank shells from nights of bombardment. A few yards farther were remnants of burned tires placed by al-Shabab, a bold sign of its ability to infiltrate government-controlled turf.

In recent days, hundreds of people seeking refuge have arrived in the Medina neighborhood, the capital's safest area because of its proximity to the airport and the African Union base. Many had fled government-controlled areas that al-Shabab militants overran. Few were willing to predict they would remain safe.

"The war has intensified, and life in Somalia has become more hellish," said Halima Mohammed, 32, who arrived Tuesday with three wounded relatives after ay shell hit their home. "Only God knows if the war will come here."

Hardly anyone in the capital had thought the war would reach the Hotel Muna.

The facility is nestled in the heart of Somalia's seats of power. Dozens of soldiers protect the Villa Somalia and several government buildings; the Ministry of Information, protected by African Union peacekeepers, is also nearby. The hotel itself had eight guards.

The attackers arrived at 9:45 a.m., as neighborhood residents gathered at a coffee shop on the hotel's first floor to hear the war's latest rumors. Boys washed cars nearby; street vendors peddled their wares.

Mohammed Ahmed Bile was on his way to work at the prime minister's office. As he passed the hotel, gunfire erupted, followed by explosions. A grenade tore through a woman standing outside the hotel, severing her head.

"Her head hit me in the chest, and I fell down," recalled Bile, who was struck in the abdomen by shrapnel. "I woke up in the hospital."

The shrapnel also struck Abdi Wali Ahmed, a bodyguard for a military commander staying at the hotel. That saved his life. He fell to the ground and pretended to be dead while the militants shot up the hotel's tiny lobby, killing four people.

"It was just by chance that I escaped," Ahmed said from his hospital bed.

Deepening fear

The gunmen, Somalis in green camouflage fatigues, made their way up the hotel's stairs, going room to room and spraying bullets at anyone they saw, witnesses recalled. Soldiers arrived and fired the men, as did lawmakers who had guns. Guests and hotel staff were caught in the crossfire.

"When they were finally cornered, they exploded themselves," said Isaac Ibrahim Ali, 46, a lawmaker who escaped by jumping from a balcony. He landed on a pile of bodies, he said, fracturing his leg.

The attack, and al-Shabab's ongoing push into government territory, has heightened calls among Somalis for more international support. According to the United Nations, the Somali government has received a tiny fraction of the $58 million pledged by foreign donors last year. Soldiers have gone months without pay.

"Al-Shabab can get uniforms easily by buying it from the soldiers," said Abdulqadir Abdullahi Hussein, a frontline commander. "Soldiers even sell their weapons to al-Shabab. The government can't be blamed. They don't have money."

Today, fear and suspicion have deepened across Mogadishu. Hotels have bolstered their security. Employees are frisked for bombs; at checkpoints, government vehicles are inspected for impostors.

At Madina Hospital, after a doctor wrapped new bandages on his legs, Ahmed said the attack had altered his view of his countrymen. "It's very difficult to trust anyone in the future, especially someone in a military uniform," he said.

A few minutes later, relatives of Bile persuaded him to stop speaking to a Western journalist. His sister walked up and, in a low voice, apologized.

"You must understand that al-Shabab is everywhere," she said. "They are listening to us. They are observing us. Whatever we say will have consequences."

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