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Somalia Car Bombing Kills Security Minister, 22 Others
Islamic insurgents claim responsibility for the attack, the latest violence in a seesaw battle with government forces for control of the African nation.
Reporting from Mogadishu, Somalia, and Nairobi, Kenya -- Islamic insurgents killed Somalia's top security minister and at least 22 other people Thursday in a suicide car-bomb attack at a hotel frequented by government officials.

The attack, which followed the killing a day earlier of Mogadishu's police chief during skirmishes in the capital, was the latest violence in a two-month battle for control of the Horn of Africa nation. Government soldiers are fighting insurgents seeking to install an Islamic state.

Security Minister Omar Hashi Aden had been leading a recent government offensive against militants in Mogadishu and other parts of the country, successfully recapturing districts that had fallen to insurgents. He was meeting with other government officials and clan elders in the central Somalian town of Beledweyne, about 200 miles north of Mogadishu and near the Ethiopian border, when the attacked occurred.

Somalia's president, Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, said the car bombing was evidence that international terrorists were trying to establish a beachhead in the country.

"Somalia has been invaded by Al Qaeda, which wants to make a hide-out inside Somalia," Ahmed told reporters in Mogadishu. "Day after day, many foreign people arrive in Somalia. I call on the international community to support us so we can eliminate these terrorists together."

The government and United Nations officials say at least 200 fighters from Yemen, Pakistan and other countries have entered Somalia to assist the hard-line Islamic insurgent group Al Shabab, which has pledged its allegiance to Al Qaeda.

In a telephone news conference Thursday, an Al Shabab spokesman acknowledged responsibility for the attack in Beledweyne.

"One of our holy warriors used a car laden with explosives to enter the building where the apostate and other members from his group were meeting," said the spokesman, Sheik Ali Mohamud Rage.

His militia accuses Ethiopia of sending soldiers over the border in recent weeks to bolster the Somali government. Ethiopian government officials denied the claims. In 2006, Ethiopia's army helped the Somali government topple an Islamic regime that had seized control of Mogadishu.

A Western diplomat in Kenya downplayed Shabab's Al Qaeda connections, saying the foreign fighters entering Somalia do not appear to be well trained.

But the diplomat, who was not authorized to speak publicly and requested anonymity, said the international community should move quickly to support the government. "The [government] is the only game in town," the diplomat said. "Now is the time to go all-in."

The U.S. has provided about $1 million in aid to the government over the last six months, but Somali officials say they need more to train and arm soldiers.

The government and insurgents each claim to have gained the upper hand in the fighting, but witnesses and analysts say the recent battles appear to have done little to tilt the balance of power. In one case, soldiers and insurgents traded control of one Mogadishu police station twice in less than 24 hours.

Civilians are bearing the brunt of the violence. As many as 250 people have died since May, according to local estimates.

In addition, about 120,000 people have been displaced by the current fighting, the U.N. refugee agency said. Many of those people had returned to Mogadishu only at the beginning of the year, when it appeared a transitional government would restore security.

"The recent fighting has had an enormous impact on the humanitarian needs in Somalia and if it continues, the ability of the aid agencies to respond will become even more difficult," said Andrea Pattison, a spokeswoman for Oxfam, which helps provide water and services to the displaced. "People on the ground are suffering from the worst fighting they've seen in a decade."

edmund.sanders@latimes.com

Source:LA Times
Tags:Somalia
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