String of attacks in Somali capital slows progress

March 20, 2013 - 1:29 PM
APTOPIX Somalia Blast

A Somali soldier stands guard near destroyed shops after a car bomb blast close to the Somali government's headquarters in the capital Mogadishu, Somalia Monday, March 18, 2013. An explosives-laden car that apparently was targeting a truck full of Somali government officials instead hit a civilian car and exploded, setting a nearby mini-bus on fire and killing at least seven people Monday, police and witnesses said. (AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh)

MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — Isaq Ahmed lifted his head from his hands, his eyes clouded with tears, as he looked at the crowd gathered near the twisted wreckage from a car bomb blast that ripped open buildings and killed at least seven people in Somalia's capital this week.

As smoke filled the air, the 30-year-old car washer recalled another suicide blast that rocked a restaurant last year where he also works and killed more than 15 people.

"I'd been feeling that peace was almost achieved, but I was wrong," the grief-stricken Ahmed said before shuffling off to wash another car, despite the destruction nearby. "I don't think I can keep working, because horrible images and agony are really weighing me down."

Mogadishu has seen a relative period of peace the last 18 months, after African Union troops forced al-Shabab militants out of the city in August 2011. The city has moved past a recent history of running street battles involving mortars, rockets and tanks.

But a recent series of suicide blasts has residents worried that Mogadishu's version of peace will be upended by regular bombings.

An al-Shabab suicide car bomb attacker targeting a convoy with Mogadishu's intelligence chief rammed his vehicle into a civilian bus on Monday, killing at least seven people and wounding the intelligence chief.

In early March, a suicide bomber detonated explosives inside a seaside restaurant in Somalia's capital, killing himself and one diner. In mid-February a bomber attacked a restaurant next to the Indian Ocean; only the bomber was killed.

The African Union forces' ousting of the al-Qaida-linked fighters from the capital and surrounding regions brought back to life Mogadishu's seaside for the first time in 20 years. Schools, shops and markets have reopened. The city government has repaired potholed streets and installed streetlights. Turkish Airlines now makes weekly flights, the first time in decades a reputable international carrier has regular flights here.

Mogadishu has also seen a revival in the arts, sports and business over the last year. Residents dance at weddings. New restaurants have opened, and construction is up. But the violence is holding back progress.

Beach-goers once flocked to Mogadishu's sandy shores. On a recent morning, dozens of people strolled along the waterfront, dipping their feet in the water, but the nearby restaurants were mostly empty.

"Because of the attacks, our business has suffered a sharp decline," said Hassan Ali, a manager at a beachfront restaurant in Mogadishu called Village close to where the restaurant attacks took place. "More than 50 percent of our customers haven't returned after the attack. It's hugely damaging to our earnings."

Outgunned and on the defensive, al-Shabab are still battling the African Union forces, but the group has resorted to roadside bombs, suicide attacks and assassinations, instead of infantry street battles which cause high casualties.

"What's happening is a setback to the security gains in Somalia by the government," said Mohamed Sheikh Abdi, a Somali political analyst. "But in comparison to what has been achieved thus far in terms of security, what is happening is merely a hiccup, rather than a game changer in the long run."

Somalia's prime minister said this week that the attacks will have no long-term effect.

"We have made far too much progress to regress to the bad old days," said Abdi Farah Shirdon.

However, in another worrying security sign, al-Shabab fighters in the last week recaptured Hudur, a town in southwestern Somalia, after Ethiopian and Somali troops left it. The retreat has raised fears that the Ethiopian troops who control several towns in western Somalia will make a more extensive pullout.

"They (al-Shabab) have greeted us with beheadings of two residents upon their arrival," said Ali Daud, a resident in Hudur, by phone. "We don't know why the Ethiopians have made that surprise departure."

Hassan Yaqub, a member of al-Shabab, said: "If the Ethiopian Christians have abandoned two towns for now, then why don't you expect more territorial gains?"