MOGADISHU, (Reuters) – Two big explosions rocked an African Union peacekeeping base in the Somali capital Mogadishu on Thursday, wounding several troops, witnesses said.
Two residents said the blasts appeared to be caused by missiles, but one Somali security source said they were suicide car bombs. A Reuters reporter saw six wounded peacekeepers being carried from the scene, some bleeding heavily.
Thick black smoke rose from the scene.
Last February, 11 Burundians were killed in an attack on an AU compound in Mogadishu.
Thursday’s attack came as insurgents holding a French security consultant hostage in Somalia issued demands in return for his release, including an immediate end to French support for the Horn of Africa nation’s government.
The rebel ultimatum was issued three days after U.S. special forces killed one of the continent’s most wanted al Qaeda suspects in a helicopter raid on a convoy carrying foreign members of the al Shabaab rebel group in southern Somalia.
The French hostage is one of two security consultants kidnapped by gunmen in Mogadishu in July. His colleague managed to escape on Aug. 26. “By the grace of Allah and under his guidance, the mujahideen succeeded in a major operation to capture an officer and agent of the French security services,” al Shabaab said in a statement directed at the authorities in Paris.
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”.
It demanded the withdrawal of the AU peacekeeping force, AMISOM, supporting the fragile administration of President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, and the departure of French warships that are trying to stamp out piracy in Somali waters.
The rebels also called for the withdrawal of Ugandan and Burundian soldiers who comprise the AU’s 5,000-strong AMISOM peace mission, “especially the Burundians”, and 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.
Western security agencies say the country has become a safe haven for militants, including foreign jihadists, who are using it to plot attacks across the region and beyond.
This week, U.S. commandos killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, the 28-year-old Kenyan who was said to have built the truck bomb that claimed 15 lives at an Israeli-owned beach hotel in Kenya in 2002. He was also wanted over a simultaneous, but botched, missile attack on an Israeli airliner leaving nearby Mombasa. Nabhan was allied with al Shabaab, which Washington accuses of being al Qaeda’s proxy in Somalia.
Residents in the al Shabaab-held southern port of Kismayu said on Thursday that Islamist gunmen went house-to-house arresting Somalis they accused of spying for the United States. “They thoroughly inspected every home and detained several people. They started with those who used to work for local NGOs. We don’t know how many exactly, but they arrested several former aid workers,” said one local man who gave his name as Ahmed.
Fighters from another Islamist insurgent group, Hizbul Islam, had been holding the other French security consultant prisoner in Mogadishu until he was able to escape last month.
Police said the former hostage had killed three of his captors, but Marc Aubriere denied killing anyone and said he slipped away while his guards slept and then walked across the city for hours until reaching the presidential palace.
Many Somalis speculated that al Shabaab would take revenge for Nabhan’s death by executing the other French hostage. In the statement, al Shabaab vowed to continue its campaign.
“The heroes of the nation, the mujahideen of Somalia, despite the number of plots against them … never cease to set an example by their sacrifices and strive to lift their nation out of this deep quagmire and into safety,” the statement said.