MOGADISHU, Somalia — Representative Donald M. Payne of New Jersey, the chairman of the House subcommittee on Africa, narrowly escaped a mortar attack on Monday as he was ending a visit to Mogadishu, Somalia’s bullet-ridden capital, that he undertook against the advice of the Obama administration.
Just a day after American military snipers killed three Somali pirates and freed a kidnapped sea captain, eliciting vows of revenge from pirates and other Somalis, several mortar rounds exploded in the vicinity of Mr. Payne’s plane as it was taking off from Mogadishu for Nairobi, Kenya. At least 10 civilians were wounded in the explosions.
The congressman, a Democrat from Newark, was unhurt and it was unclear if insurgents who routinely shell the airport were trying to hit his plane or were simply unleashing another assault on the city’s main lifeline.
The Shabab, an Islamist insurgent group vying for control of the country, later took responsibility for the attack, Reuters reported.
“We fired on the airport to target the so-called Democratic congressman sent by Obama,” said Sheik Hussein Ali, a spokesman for the Shabab. “Let him go back with the message of our strength and enmity towards the U.S. and its allies. No single group can claim control of Mogadishu, and Al Shabab will continue its attacks.”
Mr. Payne met for several hours with Somalia’s new president, Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, and the country’s prime minister, Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, and stressed that the Obama administration had turned over a new leaf toward Somalia. He had been “strongly discouraged” from making the visit by the State Department, said his press secretary, Kerry McKenney, but had decided to travel there “even if it’s dangerous, to see how the United States might be able to help stabilize the situation,” Ms. McKenney said.
During the Bush administration, the American military carried out several airstrikes against terrorism suspects in Somalia. In 2006, American forces assisted Ethiopian troops in a troubled, bloody intervention that led to thousands of civilian deaths and overthrew a grass-roots Islamist government led by Sheik Sharif. At the time, Mr. Payne was one of the few high-ranking American officials who publicly stood against the Ethiopian invasion.
“America wants to be a friend,” he told a crowd of Somalis at a news conference on Monday.
Mr. Payne had planned his visit before the hijacking of the United States-flagged cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama, and did not know for certain that he would go until shortly before Monday’s visit, Ms. McKenney said. Piracy was among the subjects he discussed with Somali officials.
“If there were no piracy, the U.S. forces would not have intervened,” he said. “I think every country and company has a right to protect itself.”
On Monday, news spread across Somalia — mostly by radio — that American snipers had killed three pirates holding Capt. Richard Phillips.
Captain Phillips’s wife, Andrea, spoke to the news media on Monday in South Burlington, Vt.
“We did not know what Richard was enduring while being held hostage on the lifeboat, and that was really the hardest part — the wondering,” Mrs. Phillips said in a statement. “My family and closest friends held on to our faith knowing that Richard would come home.”