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Mortars Rock Mogadishu Airport as African Union Commissioner Visits

Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, is off limits to many foreign journalists. The ban is largely self-imposed, because of the risks reporters face in a country where violence is rampant, and journalists are high profile targets. Seven Somali journalists were killed in the line of duty last year. Others were attacked, kidnapped or arrested by security forces. VOA's Peter Heinlein was able to travel to Mogadishu this past week in the heavily guarded company of African Union Peace and Security Commissioner Said Djinnit. Pete Heinlein sent this on-the-ground account of the hazards faced, even in the tightest of security conditions.

The ocean sparkles an emerald green, as our chartered plane approaches Mogadishu's seaside airport. The pilot holds the plane out over the water until the last possible moment to reduce the possibility of attack. The small craft gently touches the runway, and comes to a stop in front of the wreckage of another plane at the end of the tarmac.

Security is an ever-present issue in a country believed to be home to the oldest al-Qaida training camp in Africa. This day, well-armed African Union peacekeepers are blanketing the airport for the arrival of the top AU security official, Commissioner Said Djinnit.

This four-hour stopover is a symbolic gesture of support for Nur Hassan Hussein, Somalia's new prime minister. Mr. Hussein, a Mogadishu native, has been in office for two months, but only days earlier did he dare to move his government back to the capital from the more secure town of Baidoa, 250 kilometers to the northwest.

For a first time visitor to Mogadishu, the short ride to the prime minister's place is a lesson in just how dangerous the city has been, and still is.

Inside, the prime minister's heavily guarded estate is tense but cordial. The visitors are staying for lunch, then making a brief stop to pay respects to the African Union peacekeeping troops before boarding the plane for home.

In a rambling welcome speech, Prime Minister Hussein expresses hope that one day Somali security forces will be able to keep the peace themselves. But he admits an effective force is still a distant dream.

"We have tried our best, but still there are so many weaknesses we would like to address, and one of our aims is to put in place security forces, troops, police and other security forces, which will be able to protect the life and property of Somali people, and as the result of this 17 years of civil war, lack of law enforcement, we have tried to create police and other security forces, but the people they need to see police and security forces that can be very much trusted, and I hope our people will feel proud to have their armed forces, security police and military," said Hussein.

A short time later, back in the airport waiting room, a loud explosion shakes the building. Peering outside, we see a black cloud rising just outside the airport perimeter, a few hundred meters away. Just then, a small plane roars down the runway, rises into the air and veers off toward the safety of the water. Seconds later, another mortar shell crashes within 200 meters of the runway, then a third and fourth in rapid succession, all apparently fired from the neighborhood nearby.

Airport staffers shrug. 'Al-Qaida', they explain, matter-of-factly. 'It's just al-Qaida letting us know they are still here.'

A short while later, our plane lifts off. We look out the window for the telltale cloud of black smoke that would indicate more mortal shells. There is none. Within seconds, we are out over the emerald green water, and safe.

We hear later that the first shell that shook the airport killed a young boy playing in a field. Just another statistic, another casualty of Somalia's uncontrolled violence. A Somali human rights group estimates 6,000 civilians were killed in the crossfire last year.

AU Peace and Security Commissioner Said Djinnit chided the U.N. Security Council during his visit for its reluctance to send a robust peacekeeping mission to Somalia. But African nations, too, are hesitant. Last year, the AU Peace and Security Council authorized a force of 8,000 troops, but only Uganda and Burundi have sent soldiers, totaling about 1,500.