* President's election was hailed as a vote for change
* Somalia dogged by conflict for more than 20 years
* Wednesday attack shows rebel ability to strike at govt
By Yara Bayoumy
MOGADISHU, Sept 13 The peacekeeper guarding the
Mogadishu hotel smiled and said: "Leave your body armour behind.
It's safe here."
Mogadishu was a city beginning to relax, and the soldier's
advice to reporters arriving to meet Somalia's new-elected
President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud reflected that. But moments into
his news conference, the bombings and shooting began.
Optimists have hailed a "new era" for Somalia after decades
of war, insurgency and little in the way of central government.
African Union peacekeepers forced al Shabaab militants to
flee the capital over a year ago, ending the daily rat-a-tat-tat
of gunfire and thud of mortars. The rebels aligned to al Qaeda
hadn't struck with such a devastating suicide bomb since April.
Two days into the job, Mohamud looked at ease on Wednesday
as he opened the news conference with visiting Kenyan Foreign
Affairs Minister Sam Ongeri.
Then the first of two explosions rocked the street outside
the Jazeera Palace hotel and bursts of gunfire rang out. Mohamud
barely flinched, his eyes briefly scanning the room as
journalists scrambled for cover, and the news conference
But the suicide attack appeared to carry a clear warning
from al Shabaab: You may think we're down, but we're not out and
we can still strike at the heart of government.
The question on everyone's mind was: how could al Shabaab -
which claimed responsibility for the attack that killed at least
eight Somalis and AU peacekeepers - have timed it with such
Mohamud's smooth election by lawmakers on Monday had
strengthened talk that al Shabaab's five-year Islamist
insurgency was finally being defeated.
After reporting for years on famine and bombings,
journalists had written in the last few months about the "dawn
of a new Somalia", describing instead Mogadishu's crowded
beaches, late-night ice cream parlours and traffic-choked
Many Somalis, Western and Arab diplomats and aid workers
were rooting for the Horn of Africa country that had been in a
perpetual state of violence and anarchy for 20 years. Had
Somalia's turning point arrived?
Before the presidential vote the word was of change - from
the corruption-tainted leadership of President Sheikh Sharif
Ahmed, from the cycle of violence and from Somalia's reputation
as a failed state.
Somalis got change when lawmakers overwhelmingly voted for
Mohamud, a political newcomer known as an academic with a
background in reconciling feuding clans, unblemished by a
previous record in ineffectual governments.
"SOMALIA, WAKE UP"
After the 18-hour vote in a cramped hall, men in suits and
women in colourful sequined scarves and dresses rose
spontaneously to mark Mohamud's election by singing their
national anthem: "Somalia, Wake Up". Celebratory gunfire echoed
across the country.
But two days later, a more ominous kind of gunfire shattered
Journalists filed into the newly-built Jazeera Palace, a
symbol of Mogadishu's construction boom. The road leading to the
hotel in the city's safest zone, a couple of kilometres from
U.N. and African Union bases, was not blocked.
Security measures began once people crossed the hotel's
courtyard. The body pat-downs, equipment checks and bag searches
were efficient if somewhat cursory. Reporters entered a
fifth-floor room with views of Mogadishu's low-rise blocks and
the sparkling Indian Ocean beyond.
To fill the inevitable delay, the media jostled to meet the
new president's staff, hoping to secure a coveted one-on-one
interview. Somali security officials milled around.
Eventually, more than three hours after the event was
scheduled to start, Mohamud and Ongeri entered the room, flanked
by their diplomatic and security entourages.
"IN GOOD HANDS"
Barely a minute into Ongeri's opening remarks, the first
explosion struck. Gunfire erupted and journalists crouched.
Looking out the windows, bodies lay on the ground, a
bloodied, disfigured leg lay in the middle of the street.
Mohamud and Ongeri were determined to finish what they had
come to say. Both carried on their speeches, promising such
attacks would not deter them from pushing for peace in Somalia.
A calm voice, picked up by a recorder placed where Mohamud
was speaking, could be heard saying amid the clamour after the
first blast: "We are in very good hands, we don't worry."
Then the second explosion hit. Mohamud winced. Outside, a
severed head lay in a crater about 100 metres away.
The timing of the attack showed the militants had reliable
intelligence, perhaps someone on the inside. This will be a
problem for Somalia's new leadership.
A foreign ministry official, Mohamed Maie, said security
staff and African Union soldiers had let their guard down.
While al Shabaab is steadily losing ground, it can still
regroup and easily infiltrate government-controlled areas. More
worryingly, there are still disenchanted, radicalised Somalis
ready to strap on explosive belts.
Among Mohamud's biggest challenges will be to capitalise on
the security gains made over the last year and reform a
disparate and badly paid security force so that it pledges its
allegiance to the country, rather than rival power-brokers.
Back at the African Union's base, a Ugandan soldier
sighed, pointing to the blood splattered across the armoured
vehicle that had driven journalists to the hotel.
"Look at what they did to my car," he said.