NAIROBI, Kenya—Somalia braced for increasing violence on Monday after gunmen attempted to assassinate the president of Somalia's weak interim government.
The attack, in the town of Baidoa, where the interim government is headquartered, missed President Abdullah Yusuf, but killed 11 others, including the president's brother.
The attack seemed certain to deepen tensions between Yusuf's government and a federation of Islamic clerics that took control of the capital, Mogadishu, in June. The two groups have been battling for influence since, and U.S. officials worry that the Islamists could make Somalia a new haven and training ground for al-Qaida and other terrorist groups.
"It's a terrible danger," said Mario Raffaelli, Italy's special envoy to Somalia.
Government officials immediately blamed Islamist militias for the attack.
"That's the group that is intent on dismantling the transitional federal government," said Foreign Minister Ismail Hurre.
Islamist leaders denied carrying out the attack, which came one day after an Italian nun and her Somali bodyguard were slain in an ambush in Mogadishu. Government officials also blamed Islamist militias for those killings.
Somalia's interim government, formed at an international conference in Kenya two years ago, was intended to create the country's first functioning central government since 1991, when the government of Mohamed Siad Barre collapsed, ushering in years of chaos and clan-based violence.
But the government has been too weak to extend its influence much outside of Baidoa. In contrast, Mogadishu's rising Islamist movement quickly took over much of southern Somalia within weeks of defeating armed groups that reportedly were backed by the CIA.
For several weeks the government and the Islamists have been negotiating over power sharing, seen as the best chance to avoid a return to the violence that made Somalia into what's commonly called the world's most failed state.
The two sides are deeply split over an African Union proposal to send peacekeeping troops to the country, with the Islamists vehemently opposed.
Monday's attack came as members of parliament met to endorse the talks and to approve a new Cabinet. After addressing the members, Yusuf's convoy pulled away from the converted grain warehouse that houses the parliament when a car bomb detonated, triggered by a timer or a remote control, Raffaelli said.
Five presidential bodyguards, including Yusuf's younger brother, were killed in the explosion.
Then, according to witnesses, several gunmen opened fire on government security forces. Six gunmen were killed and two captured, Hurre said.
The execution of the attack and the sophisticated trigger on the car bomb were unusual for Somalia, Raffaelli said, and they suggested the involvement of foreign forces. Somalia is nominally under an arms embargo, but since the Islamists took power, illicit shipments of weapons have continued.
"We know that in the last month, arms and sophisticated weapons have been sent inside," Raffaelli said.
Islamist leaders have been credited with restoring a measure of peace to Somalia after 16 years of rule by brutal warlords. But Sunday's murder of 70-year-old nun Leonella Sgorbati and her bodyguard in Mogadishu broke that calm.
Islamist security forces arrested two men in connection with the fatal shootings outside a children's hospital where Sgorbati had worked for the past four years. They said the killers would be punished, and that calm in Mogadishu wouldn't be disturbed.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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