Somali insurgents fired mortars toward US congressman Donald Payne as he left Somalia yesterday after a rare visit by a US politician to the anarchic Horn of Africa nation.
Reuters says Somalia’s capital Mogadishu is one of the world’s most dangerous places.
US officials have shunned travel to the battle-scarred city due to constant violence.
Somali Internal Security Minister Omar Hashi Aden told Reuters Payne’s plane was airborne when the mortars fell. An African Union (AU) spokesman denied the attack on the airport — which is under AU control — had happened.
A police officer, however, said mortars struck the airport.
“One mortar landed at the airport when Payne’s plane was due to fly and five others after he left, and no one was hurt,” an officer at the airstrip told Reuters.
Residents said insurgents and AU soldiers exchanged fire after the attack, killing three people and wounding 12 others near a main market in Mogadishu.
“A mortar dropped exactly where other mortars were fired from. But I cannot make out if those injured ones are the civilians or the ones who fired,” said Ahmed, a mechanic.
Payne spoke with the interim government’s president and prime minister during the short visit. AU soldiers provided security for Payne.
He told reporters before leaving for the airport that he was there to “get a first hand report on the situation in Somalia and check the progress that has been made”.
Payne, 74, a New Jersey Democrat, defended a weekend US assault on pirates holding an American hostage off of Somalia’s coast that, observers fear, may escalate violence on the seas.
“If there were no pirates, the US government would not have intervened … Every country has a right to defend its citizens,” he said.
Payne is in his 10th term in the US House of Representatives and was first elected in 1988. He is chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health.
Jendayi Frazer, then the top US diplomat for Africa, became the first high-ranking US official to visit Somalia in more than a decade when she landed in Baidoa in April 2007.
She avoided Mogadishu because of violence there, preferring to meet officials in the provincial town that was then the seat of the Somali parliament.
Payne criticised Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia in late 2006, when Addis Ababa sent thousands of troops to crush an Islamist movement that had taken control of much of the south.
That attack ousted Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, then an Islamist leader in Mogadishu and now president of the government.
US foreign policy toward the Horn of Africa nation has been haunted by a disastrous battle in Mogadishu in 1993 that killed 18 soldiers.