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Mogadishu bombing: al-Shabaab behind deadly blast, officials say

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Jason Burke Africa correspondent

Security officials in Somalia say a key member of the cell that launched a devastating attack on Mogadishu has told them that al-Shabaab, a violent Islamist group in Somalia, was responsible for the blast.

The death toll from the bombing, which involved a truck packed with explosives, reached 320 late on Monday morning. Hundreds more were injured in one of the most lethal terrorist acts anywhere in the world for many years.

Al-Shabaab, which is an al-Qaida affiliate, vowed earlier this year to increase its attacks after both the Trump administration and Somalia’s recently elected president announced fresh military efforts against the group.

There has been no official claim of responsibility for the blast but the man, who was detained by Somali security forces as he tried to drive a second vehicle packed with explosives into the city on Saturday, has given details of the plot to interrogators.

“This is the Somali 9/11. The man we arrested has confessed. He is proud of what he has done. He says it was for jihad,” one official said.

Analysts said the Somali security services had been under “very great pressure” in recent months, and had been seriously weakened by internal factional fighting.

“We are on the track of those responsible and will bring them to justice,” the official said.

A second security official said explosives had been hidden under rice, sugar and other goods on the truck, which passed though a government-controlled checkpoint at Sinka Dheer, about four miles (7km) outside Mogadishu.

Suspicious officers stopped the vehicle and briefly detained its driver. It is understood a local businessman and tribal leader vouched for the truck.

One focus of the ongoing investigation is whether the extremists had help from within the security forces, the official said.

The bombing provoked international condemnation. Lights on the Eiffel Tower would be turned off in memory of the victims, Paris town hall announced.

The US mission to Somalia said: “Such cowardly attacks reinvigorate the commitment of the United States to assist our Somali and African Union partners to combat the scourge of terrorism.”

The scale of the attack is still becoming clear, as more victims continue to be dug from the rubble spread over an area hundreds of metres wide in the centre of the city.

Witnesses described an area the size of “two or three football fields” where buildings had been razed.

Though details are still emerging, it is thought the truck bomb was aimed at one of the ministries in the area but was detonated prematurely by its driver when it was stopped by security officials while stuck in a traffic jam. The explosion then ignited a fuel tanker parked nearby.

Abdikadir Abdirahman, the director of Amin ambulances, said 320 people died in the blast and appealed for overseas assistance.

“Families whose family members are missing are calling me every single minute,” Abdirahman said. “At such a time we need international organisations … they are good at [dealing with] crises like this.”

Sirens were heard throughout Monday morning as ambulances ferried injured people from hospitals to an airlift organised by the Turkish government, which has established a major diplomatic and humanitarian presence in Somalia in recent years.

Rescue workers said it was difficult to count casualties because the intense heat generated by the blast meant the remains of many people would not be found. Others may have been buried quickly by relatives following Islamic custom.

“One hundred and sixty of the bodies could not be recognised and so they were buried by the government [on Sunday],” Aden Nur, a doctor at the city’s Madina hospital, said. “The others were buried by their relatives. Over a hundred injured were also brought here.”

Ambulances carrying wounded victims as they head to the airport to be airlifted to Turkey. Photograph: Farah Abdi Warsameh/AP
The president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, declared three days of national mourning and joined thousands of people who responded to a plea by hospitals to donate blood for the wounded.

Mohamed, who took power in February, had vowed to rid the country of al-Shabaab. He has faced huge challenges, with the insurgency proving resilient to the ramped-up offensive aided by the US, and a famine.

Al-Shabaab, which has been affiliated to al-Qaida since 2011, has a history of launching bomb attacks against civilian targets.

“Al-Shabaab do not care about civilian deaths,” said Rasheed Abdi, an expert in Somalia with the International Crisis Group in Nairobi. “They see a population that is close to the government and think the more of them they can kill the better.”

Investigators will seek to establish the source of the military-grade explosives that are thought to have been used in the attack. One source suggested they had been stolen from Amisom, the much-criticised African Union peacekeeping mission, which has about 20,000 troops in the country.

Though largely confined to the countryside since withdrawing from Mogadishu six years ago, al-Shabaab has repeatedly taken over small towns, as well as inflicting significant losses on Amisom and Somali troops.

Abdi said al-Shabaab’s recent capture of Bariire, a town about 30 miles from Mogadishu, was important as its loss exposed the southern flank of the city.

The US military has increased drone strikes and other efforts this year against al-Shabaab, and a US special forces operative was killed in a skirmish with the group earlier this year, the first American combat casualty in Africa since the Black Hawk episode in Mogadishu in 1993.

With reporting by Abdullahi Mire in Mogadishu

Briefing Room

Somalia says it requested U.S. air strike which killed 100 militants

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Somalia’s government said on Wednesday it had requested the U.S. air strike which killed more than 100 suspected militants on the previous day to help pave the way for an upcoming ground offensive against Islamist militant group al Shabaab.

The United States military’s Africa Command said on Tuesday it had killed more than 100 of the al Qaeda-linked insurgents in an air strike on a camp 125 miles (200 km) northwest of the capital Mogadishu.

“Those militants were preparing explosives and attacks. Operations against al Shabaab have been stepped up,” Abdirahman Omar Oman, the Somali minister, told Reuters.

“We have asked the U.S. to help us from the air to make our readied ground offensive more successful.”

The United States has ramped up operations in Somalia this year after President Donald Trump loosened the rules of engagement in March.

Africom reported eight U.S. air strikes from May to August this year, compared to 13 for the whole of 2016. Including Tuesday’s air strike, it has reported five strikes in Somalia this month alone.

The Pentagon said the U.S. military would continue to target militants in strikes in coordination with the Somali government.

A Navy Seal was killed in a raid in May and U.S. forces were present at a controversial raid on the town of Bariire in August, in which 10 people were killed.

Al Shabaab has lost control of most of Somalia’s cities and towns since African Union peacekeepers supporting Somali troops pushed the insurgency out of the capital Mogadishu in 2011. But it retains a strong presence in parts of the south and center.

Somali president Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, a dual U.S.-Somali citizen, has taken a harder line than his predecessors against the insurgency since he was sworn in earlier this year.

But his plans have been repeatedly thwarted by the poor state of the Somali military and political infighting.

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U.S. airstrikes kill more than 100 militants in Somalia

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WASHINGTON — Reflecting stepped-up targeting of extremists in Africa, the U.S. military said airstrikes killed more than 100 militants in Somalia on Tuesday and hit Islamic State fighters in Libya days earlier.

U.S. Africa Command, which manages U.S. military operations on the continent, said the airstrike in Somalia targeted an al-Shabab camp about 125 miles northwest of the capital, Mogadishu, killing more than 100. That is the largest number of reported deaths from a single U.S. airstrike in Somalia since the Trump administration approved expanded military operations against al-Shabab, which is allied with al-Qaida.

Al-Shabab is blamed for last month’s truck bombing in Mogadishu that killed more than 350 people.

It’s largest number of reported deaths from a single U.S. airstrike in Somalia since the Trump administration approved expanded military operations against al-Shabab.

A Somali intelligence official said U.S. drone aircraft fired at least eight missiles at al-Shabab bases and training camps in Bur-Eylada, a village situated between the towns of Dinsor and Burhakaba in the Bay region. The official, who was not authorized to speak to reporters on the record and discussed the matter on condition of anonymity, said senior al-Shabab commanders were among the dead.

The U.S. this month also began targeting a small but growing IS presence in northern Somalia.

Separately, Africa Command said it conducted two airstrikes near Fuqaha in central Libya against Islamic State group militants — one Nov. 17 and another two days later. It made no mention of casualties and did not identify the specific targets. It said the strikes were done in coordination with Libya’s interim government, known as the Government of National Accord.

The Trump administration has committed to preventing the Islamic State group from regrouping after losing its grip on significant territory in Iraq and Syria.

AFRICOM STATEMENT

In coordination with the Federal Government of Somalia, U.S. forces conducted an airstrike in Somalia against an al-Shabaab camp on Tuesday, Nov. 21 at approximately 10:30 a.m. local Somalia time, killing more than 100 militants.

The operation occurred 125 miles northwest of the capital, Mogadishu.

Al-Shabaab has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda and is dedicated to providing safe haven for terrorist attacks throughout the world. Al-Shabaab has publicly committed to planning and conducting attacks against the U.S. and our partners in the region.

U.S. forces will continue to use all authorized and appropriate measures to protect Americans and to disable terrorist threats. This includes partnering with AMISOM and Somali National Security Forces (SNSF); targeting terrorists, their training camps and safe havens throughout Somalia, the region and around the world.

Our political and security goals in Somalia are the same: a reconstituted Somali state at peace internally and able to address all threats within its territory.

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Briefing Room

Somaliland Ruling Party Candidate Bihi Wins Election

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Ruling party candidate Muse Bihi Abdi has been declared the winner of the presidential election in the breakaway republic of Somaliland.

The electoral commission said Bihi won 55 percent of the vote compared to 40 percent for Abdurahman Mohamud Abdullahi, the opposition Wadani party candidate.

Faisal Ali Waraabe, of the For Justice and Development party (UCID), finished third with about 4 percent of the vote.

Electoral Commission Chairman Abdikadir Iman Warsame, who announced the results in Hargeisa Tuesday, said the election was “peaceful, free and fair”

The announcement came eight days after hundreds of thousands of voters cast ballots at more than 1,600 polling stations.

Bihi would replace outgoing President Ahmed Mohamed Mohamoud, who chose not to seek another term. He is Somaliland’s fifth president since the region broke away from the rest of Somalia in 1991.

Who is Bihi?

Bihi was born in a rural part of Hargeisa in 1948.

In 1985, as an air force military colonel, he joined the Somali National Movement, (SNM), a rebel group that fought for secession from Somalia.In 1993, after the collapse of the former Somali military government, he became Somaliland’s interior minister.

In 2002, he became a member of the executive committee of the ruling Kulmiye party, where he was named deputy chairman in 2008 and chairman in 2015.

President-elect Bihi will serve a five-year term with an option for a second term. His central agenda is how to win international recognition for Somaliland.

Somalia wants Somaliland to be part of a single Somali state. But Somaliland, which used to be a British colony and broke away from the rest of Somalia in 1991, wants to be a separate country.

Since its formation it has been more stable than Somalia and democratic elections have been commonplace.

Post-election tension

Political tension mounted in Somaliland following the election, after the Wadani party candidate Abdirahman Mohamed Abdullahi said he would not accept what he termed the “massively rigged and corrupted exercise.”

Abdullahi questioned the transparency of the election and accused the current government of arresting his representatives at polling stations to steal votes and commit fraud.

“The election was not [a] free and fair election because members of our party representatives and supporters were arrested on the Election Day and after,” said Abdullahi. “And then we found out that the election was massively corrupted and rigged.”

Wadani party members withdrew from the counting process, saying they had evidence of fake ballots smuggled out of the polling stations in at least three Somaliland regions.

The allegations were later denied by Electoral Commission Chairman Warsame, who said there was no ballot stuffing or other irregularities.

On Thursday, at least two people were killed in protests that followed the opposition party’s claims of alleged election fraud.

Abdullahi then called on his supporters to show calm and asked the leaders of the current government to release party members from jails.

The head of a British-funded team of 60 international observers, who monitored the vote, said last week they saw some minor infringements of voting rules, but agreed the overall voting process met international standards.

“We determined from our observations that there were not [irregularities] of sufficient scale to undermine the integrity of the electoral processes,” said Michael Walls, a senior lecturer in the Development Planning Unit at University College London.

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