Nun's death ends lull in Somalia violence

Motive is unclear in double shooting, officials say

September 18, 2006|By Edmund Sanders | Edmund Sanders,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MOGADISHU, Somalia -- Gunmen fatally shot an Italian nun and her Somali bodyguard yesterday outside a nursing school and children's hospital where she had taught for the past four years.

The killings shattered a two-month lull in political violence in Mogadishu and revived security concerns just as several Western humanitarian organizations were considering a return to the Somali capital.

The attack also was a setback for Islamic Courts Union, which seized control of Mogadishu from U.S.-backed warlords in June.

Islamic officials, who are widely credited for restoring security to the capital, have been encouraging United Nations and other international aid groups to resume their assistance in the capital.

According to a recent public statement by the courts union, there had been no reported political killings in Mogadishu since July, when Swedish photographer Martin Adler was shot while covering an anti-Western demonstration.

"This sends a very bad signal," said Mario Raffaelli, Italy's special envoy here.

Somalia has been without a functioning government since 1991, when the collapse of the Siad Barre regime allowed rival warlords to carve up the Horn of Africa country.

Islamic Courts Union officials condemned yesterday's attack and announced that they had captured one of the two suspected gunmen.

The motive for the shootings was under investigation.

However, the chief of security for the courts union, Yusuf Mohammed Siad, said he suspected the attackers were either disgruntled former employees at the medical facilities or Islamic fundamentalists angry at Pope Benedict XVI.

During an address last week, the pope quoted a 14th-century emperor who referred to the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad as "evil and inhuman." Benedict said yesterday that he was "deeply sorry" for the reaction to his speech.

The nun, identified by a co-worker as Leonella Sgorbati, had been working here for four years as a nursing instructor for SOS International, an international aid group. In June, she oversaw the graduation of 80 Somali nurses and helped them find jobs.

"She brought hope to so many young people here," said William Huber, an SOS official in Somalia.

Officials said Sgorbati, 64, wearing a white dress and nun's habit, and SOS security guard, Mohammed Mahmoud, 50, were ambushed as they crossed a dirt road separating two guarded health facilities. Both were shot several times.

In an interview shortly before the attack, the Islamic Court's chief foreign affairs official, Ibrahim Hassan Addou, warned against taking security for granted. "There is peace and security in Mogadishu, but there are still risks," he said. "You must be careful."

Some observers speculated that the attackers were linked to former warlords or to people inside Somalia's transitional government, which has been at odds with the courts union. Others blamed hard-line Islamic extremists who oppose a foreign presence inside Somalia.

Edmund Sanders writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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