Somalia's militant Shabab group has taken responsibility for a mortar and rocket attack on the town of Baidoa, where the country's Ethiopia-backed interim parliament is based. It was the first insurgent attack on the heavily-guarded town since late 2006. VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu has details from our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi.
Speaking by phone from an undisclosed location, Shabab spokesman Sheik Muktar Robow says the overnight attack targeted presidential guards and Ethiopian forces supporting the interim government.
The Shabab commander says his fighters attacked the airport and the presidential palace, and inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy. He claimed that the seat of government is no longer safe.
Government officials in Baidoa, 250-kilometers northwest of the capital Mogadishu, confirm that numerous mortar rounds struck the airport and palace. They say two soldiers were killed and seven others were wounded.
Somali Deputy Prime Minister and Information Minister Ahmed Abdi Salaan says the government considers the attack a media stunt.
"Baidoa is functioning," he said. "It is safe. The parliament is in Baidoa. I think the only reason why these few mortars were thrown was just for the media for people like you, honestly."
The attack occurred on the eve of the deadline for the implementation of a 90-day cease-fire pact signed last month in Djibouti between the government and the moderate faction of an Islamist-led opposition group.
The agreement calls for the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops, contingent on the deployment of a sizable U.N. stabilization force in Somalia in the next four months. The Ethiopian military intervened in Somalia in late 2006 to oust Islamists from power and to install the interim government in Mogadishu.
Opposition hardliners, including the Shabab, have rejected the Djibouti accord for not demanding an immediate Ethiopian withdrawal.
Robow says there will be no cease-fire while Ethiopian troops are still on Somali soil and his group will never negotiate with an Ethiopia-backed Somali government.
Meanwhile, the African Union issued a statement condemning the Baidoa attack and the assassination of a senior U.N. aid official Sunday in Mogadishu. The AU statement called for the U.N. Security Council to take measures against those who undermine peace and stability in Somalia.
Earlier this year, the United States designated the Shabab as a terror group for its alleged ties to the al-Qaida network. The group has claimed responsibility for scores of Iraq-style attacks since the insurgency began 19 months ago.
Sheik Muktar Robow and his fighters have been active in the Bay and Bakool regions of southern Somalia and have recently gained control of several key towns and districts.
Three days ago, Robow accused some members of parliament of planning a military offensive in Bay and Bakool. He threatened to attack Baidoa if the lawmakers went ahead with their plan. It is not clear if the attack on Baidoa was related to that threat.