MOGADISHU, Somalia - Assailants fired mortar shells at Mogadishu airport as a plane carrying a U.S. congressman took off, a police officer said. The plane departed safely, but 19 Somalis from surrounding residential areas were reported injured.
U.S. Rep. Donald Payne, chairman of the House of Representatives' Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Africa, was briefed before he left on the perils of visiting the lawless Somali capital described as one of the most dangerous places in the world, a State Department spokesman said. The U.S. Embassy in Kenya confirmed his safe arrival in Nairobi later Monday.
Nearly every building in Mogadishu is crumbling or pockmarked with bullet holes. Foreigners rarely travel there, and when they do they travel under armed guard and in convoys.
Payne told reporters he met with Somalia's president and prime minister during his one-day visit to the city to discuss piracy, security and cooperation between Somalia and the United States. The congressman held a news conference in the presidential palace, which itself has freqently been targeted in mortar attacks.
In 2007, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer became the highest-ranking American envoy to visit Somalia since 1993, when rebels brought down two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters in Mogadishu, and then engaged U.S. soldiers in a 12-hour firefight that left some 300 Somalis dead. The U.S. withdrew a year later.
But even she did not visit Mogadishu, instead landing in the government stronghold of Baidoa and leaving the same day.
None of the six fired mortar shells landed in the airport and the plane carrying the New Jersey Democrat took off safely, said Col. Mohamed Idi, a police officer at the airport. He said no one was hurt in the airport, but said the shells landed in a nearby residential area.
Medina Hospital Administrator Ali Adde said 19 civilians, mostly women and children, were injured by the shells.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Robert Wood confirmed Payne was unharmed.
Wood said Payne received a security briefing before he went to Mogadishu and that the congressman chose to go anyway.
"We provided the congressman with a briefing and gave him a very frank and straightforward assessment of the security situation," he said.
Payne's brother William, in Newark, N.J., said he had heard about the mortar attack from his brother's congressional office in Washington and from the New Jersey Department of Homeland Security.
He said the congressman left the U.S. on Friday for Somalia, and that he was talking with leaders in Mogadishu about ways the U.S. can help stabilize Somalia. The war-ravaged country has lacked an effective government for 18 years and is split among competing militias.
The congressman would have been looking for ways to work with Somali leaders to help the U.S. ship and crew that were attacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia, William Payne said.
"The whole family is real worried about him," Payne said. "He left here while the pirate situation was going on and would have been involved in it."
A five-day standoff over the hijacked ship ended late Sunday when U.S. Navy snipers killed three Somali pirates and freed the American sea captain being held at gunpoint.
"We're trying to find out more right now," William Payne said. "Until I hear from my brother I won't be satisfied."