MOGADISHU, Somalia — Assailants fired mortar shells at the Mogadishu airport as a plane carrying an American congressman took off Monday, officials said. The plane departed safely, but 19 Somalis were reported wounded in surrounding residential areas.
U.S. Rep. Don Payne, who met with Somalia's top leaders during his one-day visit, said that he had no idea of the violence until reaching Kenya after the flight from Mogadishu, one of the most dangerous cities in the world and rarely visited by foreign travelers.
"We found out when we arrived in Nairobi," the chairman of the House subcommittee on Africa told The Associated Press. He said that the aircraft noise probably drowned out the sound of the mortars.
The Islamic extremist group al-Shabab claimed responsibility in a posting on a militant Web site, saying it launched the mortar barrage after learning of Payne's visit, according to the terrorism monitoring group SITE.
The militants, who have suspected links to al-Qaida and have carried out widespread attacks in Somalia, said they "will welcome each and every arrogant and proud enemy of Allah" with similar attacks. "What happened to (Payne) and his escorts was only the beginning."
The New Jersey Democrat downplayed the danger, saying the African Union troops did a good job with his security.
With the officials, Payne said he discussed security, cooperation between Somalia and the U.S. and piracy. The meetings came just hours after a high-seas standoff between the U.S. and pirates who seized an American sea captain ended with U.S. Navy snipers killing three pirates and freeing the seaman.
"The pirates were one of the main topics of discussion that I had with the president and prime minister there," he said "They want to work with our government. They have a plan to reduce piracy, which they'll be presenting to the U.S. in the next two or three weeks."
Somalia has been without a functioning government since 1991 when clan warlords ousted a longtime dictator, with the current leadership failing to provide stability or protect citizens. The U.N. imposed sanctions in an effort to stem the flow of arms into Somalia, a key cause of the mayhem.
Payne said the government leaders were hoping for an end to sanctions which they said would facilitate efforts to build an army.
"The way they say you defeat piracy is on the ground. You don't let them get out (to sea). They feel they have the ability to do it. They just need the resources," said Payne.
"If the U.S. and the world community take supportive action towards the fledgling government in Somalia, I am confident that they will succeed and a new Somalia will indeed emerge," Payne said in a separate statement.
The chaos has prompted travelers of all sorts to steer clear. In 2007, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer became the highest-ranking American envoy to visit Somalia since 1993, when rebels shot down two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters in Mogadishu and battled American soldiers in a 12-hour firefight that left some 300 Somalis dead. The U.S. withdrew a year later.
The congressman was warned of the problems. State Department spokesman Robert Wood said Payne received a briefing on Mogadishu's security problems and chose to go anyway.
None of the six mortar shells fired Monday landed on the airport as the plane carrying Payne took off safely, said Col. Mohamed Idi, a police officer at the airport.
Idi said the shells hit in nearby residential area. Medina Hospital administrator Ali Adde said 19 civilians, mostly women and children, were injured.
Associated Press writers Victor Epstein in Newark, N.J., Matt Lee in Washington and Salad Duhul in Mogadishu contributed to this report.