- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 15, 2009

MOGADISHU, Somalia | Islamic insurgents attacked Somalia’s presidential palace and five civilians were killed Wednesday, underscoring fears the country could collapse into further chaos only a day after Ethiopian troops handed over security duties to a Somali force.

The extremist group at the center of the fighting, which wants to establish an Islamic state in Somalia, said it now would focus its attacks on the thousands of African Union peacekeepers in the country.

“You used to hear Ethiopian bases were attacked daily, but from now you will hear the African Union bases were attacked,” said Muktar Robow, spokesman of the Islamic insurgency group, al-Shabab, which the U.S. State Department considers a terrorist organization with links to al Qaeda.

“We ask them to leave our country. If not, we will force them to leave,” Mr. Robow said of the peacekeepers at a news conference in the Somali capital.

There are currently about 2,400 Ugandan and Burundian peacekeepers in Mogadishu whose mandate is restricted to guarding key government installations such as the port and airport. To date, they have rarely been the target of insurgent attacks.

Neighboring Ethiopia handed over security duties Tuesday after a two-year deployment. Somalia’s weak U.N.-backed government had called in the Ethiopian troops in December 2006 to oust an umbrella Islamic group — which included the al-Shabab extremists — that had controlled southern Somalia and the capital for six months.

The Ethiopian army, one of Africa’s largest, was viewed by many Somalis as abusive and heavy-handed. But few expect the Somali government now can ensure security. It controls only pockets of the capital, Mogadishu, and Baidoa, where parliament sits — and has tried to rule without a president for weeks.

Thousands of civilians have been killed in fighting in the past year, particularly in the capital, and hundreds of thousands have fled the violence.

On Wednesday, insurgents fired mortar rounds at the presidential palace for the second time this week alone. Government soldiers retaliated and some of their mortar rounds hit the capital’s largest market of Bakara, said Farah Mumin, a salesman who said he saw three civilians killed and nine wounded.

Elsewhere, two male teenagers were killed when a mortar struck them as they ran to seek cover in a building, said Dahir Absuge, a resident who saw what happened from his house.

Islamic insurgents have attacked the presidential palace several times over the past two years without killing any senior officials.

Separately, Islamic insurgents attacked other Ethiopian troops withdrawing from a key road junction in southern Mogadishu. Insurgents and Ethiopians rarely comment on their casualties.

Also Wednesday, officials said gunmen had abducted an Egyptian teacher in Somalia’s relatively peaceful northwestern breakaway republic where such kidnappings are rare. Mohamed Mustafa Ibrahim was stopped late Tuesday as he went to a mosque in Burao, located in the self-declared Republic of Somaliland.

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