By Ibrahim Mohamed and Abdi Sheikh
MOGADISHU (Reuters) – Mortar bombs killed at least 30 people in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu on Thursday after rebels launched shells at the president’s plane and African Union (AU) peacekeepers responded with heavy artillery fire.
President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, who was leaving for a summit in Uganda, was not hurt. But residents and medical workers said at least 30 people died and scores more were wounded in one of the heaviest exchanges to rock the city for weeks.
Farah Olow, a shopkeeper in the sprawling Bakara market, told Reuters by telephone that six people were killed by one shell that demolished a home there.
“They were taking cover in a concrete building, but such big shells can penetrate the strongest house,” he said. “We can’t go out to count how many more are dead. Bombs are raining on us.”
Bakara, which is notorious for its open-air weapons bazaar, has long been viewed by the government and the AU force AMISOM as a stronghold of hardline Islamist al Shabaab insurgents trying to overthrow the country’s transitional administration.
Washington accuses the rebel group of being al Qaeda’s proxy in the failed Horn of Africa state.
Ali Yasin Gedi, vice chairman of Mogadishu’s Elman Peace and Human Rights Organization, said the insurgents had opened fire as the president’s plane was leaving the coastal airstrip.
“Insurgents fired mortar bombs at the plane carrying President Ahmed, and then AMISOM responded with shells. That is how the problem started,” Gedi told Reuters.
Fighting in Somalia has killed 19,000 civilians since the start of 2007 and driven another 1.5 million from their homes, triggering one of the world’s worst humanitarian emergencies.
Western security agencies say the Horn of Africa nation has become a safe haven for militants, including foreign jihadists, who are using it to plot attacks across the region and beyond.
Last month, al Shabaab hit AMISOM’s Mogadishu headquarters in an audacious twin suicide car bombing that killed 17 peacekeepers, including the Burundian deputy force commander.
An AMISOM spokesman declined to discuss the details of Thursday’s clashes, but said the rebels were deluded if they thought they could bomb the peacekeepers into submission.
“The insurgents are day-dreaming and practicing wishful thinking,” Major Barigye Ba-hoku told Reuters.
Al Shabaab commanders and the group’s spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment.