Mogadishu: Somalia’s new president survived an assassination attempt on his second day in office when two suicide bombers blew themselves up Wednesday while trying to gain access into a heavily guarded hotel that is his temporary residence, officials and witnesses said.
The attack highlights the challenge that insecurity caused by an insurgency poses to Somalia’s fledgling government, which is expected to help transform the east African country from being a failed state to one with functioning government.
The African Union Mission for Somalia said one of its soldiers was killed when the two suicide attackers attempted to penetrate the Jazeera Hotel where the President Hassan Shaikh Mahmoud and Kenya’s foreign minister were giving a news conference. Three soldiers were wounded in the blast.
The two suicide bombers set off explosions after they were shot by soldiers guarding the Jazeera Hotel, while another was intercepted and shot dead as he attempted to scale the walls of the hotel’s compound, the African Union Mission for Somalia, known as Amisom, said in a statement.
Witnesses say at least one more person was killed, bringing the total death toll to a minimum of five, including the three attackers.
The president who was elected by Parliament on Monday, was undeterred by the explosions and continued to speak to the media, AMISOM said.
Al Shabab, a radical militia that is affiliated with Al Qaida and waging an insurgency against the Somali government, quickly claimed responsibility for the attack. Al Shabab had opposed Hassan’s election, saying it had been manipulated by Western powers.
Somali parliamentarians were tasked with electing a president since no election could be held, given the state of security around the country.
African Union forces are helping the Somali government fight Al Shabab, which the US has designated as terrorist group and which neighbouring African countries consider a threat.
Police Corp. Yousuf Ali said he was guarding the Somalia immigration department near the Jazeera Hotel when the two blasts occurred.
An Associated Press photographer inside the hotel for the president’s news conference with Kenyan Foreign Minister Sam Ongeri confirmed the two officials were safe. The photographer said he saw at least five bodies near the gate of the hotel. Witness Mohammad Nuradin confirmed that death toll.
President Hassan has taken up temporary residence at Jazeera Hotel in a highly protected zone near the airport before moving to the presidential palace. During Monday’s election, he defeated Shaikh Shariff Shaikh Ahmad who was seeking re-election as president after having led a transitional government for three years. Somalia has had transitional administrations since 2004.
Hassan, 56, an academic and activist, is expected to form the county’s first functioning central government since 1991, when warlords overthrew a longtime dictator.
Since 2004, Somalia has been represented by a UN-approved leadership structure called the Transitional Federal Government that mostly controlled only small parts of Mogadishu. That government has accomplished little, but because African Union and Somali troops pushed Al Shabab militants out of the capital last year and most part of the country they occupied, positive momentum is building.
The international community has supported the election of a new president for Somalia, saying it’s a step toward moving the country out of its failed-state status but that much more remains to be done in a country bloodied by two decades of war.
Hassan faces an uphill task unifying a fractious country in the face of the Al Qaida-linked insurgency and rebuilding a bombed-out infrastructure, food security and institutions. Another challenge is fighting endemic corruption that plagued previous governments.
Many of Al Shabab’s troops are reported to have fled into northern Somalia over the last year following their pullout from Mogadishu in August 2010 in the face of an African Union onslaught. Fighters are also flocking to Kismayo, the last major city Al Shabab controls.
Al Shabab militants, though evicted from Mogadishu, still penetrate the seaside capital to carry out suicide attacks. One such attack took place last month as Somali elders voted in a new internationally backed constitution that guarantees more rights for women and children. The bombers were stopped at the gates and no one except the two attackers was killed.