MOGADISHU — Islamist militants carried out a deadly assault on a U.N. compound in the Somali capital on Wednesday, dealing a blow to fragile security gains that have allowed a slow return of foreign aid workers and diplomats.
Interior Minister Abdikarim Hussein Guled said four foreign U.N. security staff and four local guards were killed in a drawn-out gunbattle that left seven insurgent fighters dead. A U.N. spokesman said casualty numbers were still being verified.
The assault, claimed by Islamist al Shabaab, began before midday when a car bomb exploded outside the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) base. Rebel gunmen then forced their way into the compound and battled with security guards.
The African Union peacekeeping force, which sent soldiers and armored vehicles to the site, said the compound, which houses several buildings, was under the control of friendly troops after a gunfight that lasted more than 90 minutes.
It was the first notable attack on U.N. premises by al Shabaab since they were driven out of Mogadishu in fighting with AU and Somali government forces about two years ago.
More than 1 million Somalis live in a state of humanitarian emergency or crisis, according to the United Nations, which has only recently started building up offices and international staff in Somalia after some security improvements.
"The U.N., a merchant of death and a satanic force of evil, has a long inglorious record of spreading nothing but poverty, dependency and disbelief," al Shabaab said on its Twitter feed @HSMPRESS1.
The South African state weapons firm Denel said two of its staff were killed in the raid. Militants have launched grenade strikes and similar low-level attacks on U.N. bases in the past, but no assault of this scale.
One U.N. official said some Western nations that had been keen to support the Western-leaning government elected last year had played down dangers posed by al Shabaab and its ability to infiltrate the security forces and attack the capital.
"This is part of the consequence of over-optimism in some Western nations that has overshadowed the need to look at deeper problems before rolling out any kind of U.N. mission," said the official, who follows Somalia closely but is not authorized to talk to the media.
He said the government had not done enough to overhaul its security forces.
The top U.N. official in Somalia, Nicholas Kay, told Reuters there were lessons to be learned but that the United Nations would not be deterred from its mission.
Asked whether U.N. staff would be evacuated from Mogadishu, Kay said: "No. The U.N. is here to help and we are here to stay."
The UNDP compound is located just a few hundred meters (yards) from the airport, which serves as the main base for the African Union peacekeeping force battling insurgents across southern Somalia.
The Somali government condemned the attack and offered "deepest sympathy to all victims."
"Today all Somalia stands shoulder to shoulder with UNSOM," Prime Minister Abdi Farah Shirdon Saaid said on Twitter, referring to the new U.N. Somalia assistance program UNSOM.
Bystanders reported several smaller blasts inside the compound during the gunfight, though it was not clear if these were caused by gunmen blowing themselves up or other explosives.
The raid appeared to be a copycat of a strike on Mogadishu's law courts in April, when gunmen detonated suicide vests during a gunbattle with security forces.
AU forces and government troops drove al Shabaab rebels out of the coastal capital in 2011, but militants have kept up guerrilla-style attacks from rural bases.
The overthrow of a dictator in 1991 plunged Somalia into two decades of violent turmoil, first at the hands of clan warlords and then Islamist militants, who have steadily lost ground since 2011 under pressure from the AU military offensive.
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