Somalia

Insurgents kill 11 peacekeepers in Somalia

  • Attacks kill 11 peacekeepers from Burundi

- AU force says mortar bombs hit its compound

- Hardline insurgents say two suicide bombers responsible

- New government vows swift response

By Ibrahim Mohamed

MOGADISHU, Feb 22 (Reuters) - Islamist insurgents killed 11 Burundi soldiers in Somalia's capital Mogadishu on Sunday in the deadliest attack on an African Union peacekeeping force.

The African Union said a compound housing troops from Burundi had been targeted by mortar bombs. Islamist insurgents said two suicide bombers, one in a car packed with explosives, had carried out the attacks.

"These attacks have reached today an unprecendented level, resulting in the killing of 11 Burundian soldiers, while 15 oothers have sustained serious injuries," the African Union said in a statement.

A loud explosion shook the compound on Sunday morning. Witnesees said they had seen a car speeding towards the gate and then heard a blast and saw plumes of smoke rising into the air.

The 3,500-strong African Union force also comprises troops from Uganda.

Somalia has been plagued by conflict for the past 18 years and Islamist insurgents have been fighting the government for over two years. More than 16,000 civilians have been killed since the start of 2007 and a million uprooted from their homes.

While some insurgents have now pledged to support the new administration led by moderate Islamist President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, the hardline line al Shabaab group, which claimed responsibility for Sunday's attack, has vowed to fight on.

Al Shabaab gained support as one of many groups waging war against Ethiopian troops that had been propping up the government. The Ethiopian withdrawal in January placated some, but al Shabaab now wants the foreign peacekeepers to leave.

Somalia's new internal security minister, Omar Hashi Aden, said the government wanted the peacekeepers to stay and would "respond very quickly to this cruel attack".

"CRIMINAL AND COWARDLY"

The African Union's top diplomat, Jean Ping, said the AMISOM troops had been under intense mortar attack since Feb. 17. He said a Burundian solider had also been killed on Friday.

"The Chairperson of the Commission (Ping) condemns in the strongest terms these criminal and cowardly attacks, perpetrated by elements bent on undermining the ongoing efforts to promote peace and security in Somalia and whose only aim is to bring about more violence and destruction," the AU said.

Aden was one of 36 ministers sworn in by parliament in Djibouti on Saturday. They have been meeting there due to security concerns at home, but the government is expected to return to Mogadishu next week.

"We are ready to listen to suggestions, but we will not tolerate violence against these troops," Aden told Reuters. "No forces from outside the government can determine the withdrawal of the peacekeepers."

Like some other key ministers, Aden is a member of the Islamist opposition party, the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia, that joined parliament in January under a U.N.-hosted peace process in Djibouti.

Aden and the new interior minister Abdikadir Ali Omar have strong influence over a large number of Islamists who fought the Ethiopians, but are now backing President Ahmed.

Some regional diplomats say the inclusion of many moderate Islamists in the government provides a new political dynamic in Somalia, which could end the spiral of violence and ultimately marginalise the hardliners in al Shabaab.

The group is on Washington's list of foreign terrorist groups and is known to have foreign fighters within its ranks.

Al Shabaab's spokesman, Sheikh Muktar Robow Mansoor, said a suicide bomber wearing a jacket with explosives had detonated his charge near the peacekeepers' compound and another in a car had set off his device at the gate. But Major Barigye Ba-Hoku, spokesman for the AU's AMISOM force in Mogadishu, denied the suicide attack claims.

(Additional reporting by Abdi Sheikh in Mogadishu; Abdiaziz Hassan and David Clarke in Nairobi; Writing by David Clarke; Editing by Robert Woodward)

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