Video: Suicide bombing in Mogadishu
GRAPHIC CONTENT WARNING: Michelle Shephard and Randy Risling report from Mogadishu, where a suicide bomber killed only himself near an AU peacekeeping base.
MOGADISHU, SOMALIA—The leader of a militant group that once controlled large swaths of this city has offered a rare apology as he attempted to rally Somalis to fight against Kenyan forces in the south.
“Be patient and inshallah you will forgive us,” Al Shabab leader Sheikh Muqtar Robow told followers in the city of Baidoa, as he urged people to combat the Kenyan military forces in the country’s south.
Hundreds of Kenyan troops entered Somalia unexpectedly a week ago in response to the high-profile kidnappings of aid workers and European tourists in Kenya.
Some analysts and residents here believe Robow’s appeal — during a speech carried on local television and radio stations Sunday — is a further sign of the group weakened by fighting and disagreements among its leaders.
Although one of the group’s long-time and most radical members, Robow is believed to be among those leaders critical of the Oct. 4 truck bomb that killed dozens of students applying for foreign scholarships.
The Shabab has also been blamed for the famine now gripping this country’s south, since the militant Islamic group had blocked international aid groups from distributing food.
Perhaps sensitive to the criticism, they staged a somewhat surreal press conference a week ago, announcing the aid delivery as a gift from Al Qaeda’s number two, Ayman al Zawahiri, and on behalf of “Martyr (Osama) bin Laden.”
In the latest speech, Robow said Somalis could discuss their grievances with the group’s tactics in the future, but now they must defend the Shabab against foreigners.
Kenyan fighter jets joined the assault on the Shabab stronghold and key southern port town of Kismayo Sunday.
“A jet bombarded an Al Shabab base near the port. It dropped a huge shell, flew past, came and then dropped another shell,” Kismayo resident Mahmoud Hassan told Reuters.
“The whole town shook. We’ve never heard anything like it.”
Another resident told Reuters that the Shabab had ordered people to run to their homes.
“I think Kismayo will be a touch match,” argued International Crisis Group analyst Rashid Abdi in a recent interview. “It’s an archipelago. It’s strategic for the defenders, not the attackers historically.”
Abdi is among those who fear that if Kenyan troops stay in the country long it could benefit the Shabab.
“Despite the fact that Al Shabab is politically unpopular and lost considerable support in the last two years largely because of its hardline policies domestically and terrorist attacks — in Mogadishu, the last one especially — if we have a prolonged and messy Kenyan intervention, I wouldn’t be surprised that that would revive political support for Al Shabab. That would be the danger.”
Fears of a retaliatory attack inside Kenya prompted the U.S. embassy in Nairobi to warn its citizens of a possible “imminent threat” to malls, night clubs or other crowded venues.
As the Kenyan troops moved north, the Burundian and Ugandan soldiers with the African Union peacekeeping mission continue to push south from here, fighting alongside the transitional federal government’s military.
Reports from the frontline state that the Shabab is suffering the greatest losses, but estimates from all sides are often unreliable and treated with skepticism.
In Somalia, a country where it is rare to find an urban dweller without a cellphone, rumours spread fast and furiously.
Even details about an attack here in the capital Sunday remain uncertain.
There was no mistaking the black cloud of smoke and boom of an explosion Sunday morning near a Burundian base and the Tarabunka camp of thousands of Somalis displaced by the famine or fighting.
Less than an hour later, a small crater in the soft sand and small part of what looked like the attacker’s scalp was all that was left.
Reports given to the Toronto Star after the explosion stated only that the bomber was killed and no one injured. Other reports claimed the source of the explosion was a buried IED, not a bomb.
An African Union spokesperson told The Associated Press that two peacekeepers had been wounded after the suicide bomber ran after an AU convoy.
Whatever the circumstances, this city doesn’t stop long for an attack.
About 30 minutes after the explosions, curious camp residents gathered nearby and a Burundian soldier scooped up the gruesome remains on a stick.
Despite these sporadic attacks, the roads were clogged Sunday as Somalis continue to flee the fighting for the capital, their possessions piled precariously on trucks or donkeys.
Many came from camps on the city’s outskirts — where they had once fled when the fighting here was at its worst — to return home.