MOGADISHU, Somalia — Militants staged a deadly assault on a UN compound here Wednesday, the latest in a series of attacks that have chipped away at the security gains the Somali capital has experienced in recent years.
Al Shabab, an Islamist militant group that once controlled much of the capital, claimed responsibility for the attack, which government officials said left at least 15 people dead, including seven attackers.
The attack began when Al Shabab militants blew up a pickup truck rigged with explosives outside the compound, witnesses said. Militants armed with rifles and wearing explosive vests then stormed the facility on foot. Somali and African Union troops responded to the scene. The ensuing firefight lasted more than an hour, punctuated by a series of blasts.
Somalia’s minister of interior and national security, Abdikarim Hussein Guled, told reporters that the dead included four foreigners, four Somalis working for the United Nations as security personnel, as well as the attackers. In a statement, Somalia’s prime minister, Abdi Farah Shirdon Saaid, condemned “the senseless and despicable attack on innocent UN civilians.”
Mogadishu has experienced a period of relative calm since African Union forces and the Somali Army pushed back Al Shabab, leading it to announce a hasty retreat from the city in 2011. The militant group vowed to shift tactics more toward guerrilla assaults, assassinations, and suicide bombings.
Militants “are now in complete control of the entire compound and the battle is still ongoing,” Al Shabab said on its Twitter feed during the attack. “Inside the compound are several clueless foreigners who were lulled into a false sense of security by a strong disinformation campaign!” Al Shabab, which has sworn allegiance to Al Qaeda, said that the group’s Martyrdom Brigade had carried out the attack.
The UN compound sits on a busy stretch of road near the airport. An ambulance worker, Abdirisak Moumin, said that he had collected 13 wounded civilians, six of whom died from their injuries.
Nicholas Kay, the UN special representative for Somalia, was outside the compound at a meeting nearby when the attack occurred. He called the attack an act of terrorism intended to derail Somalia’s drive toward recovery after decades of war and instability.
While the United Nations would review its security procedures, “the UN is committed to its mission,” Kay said in a phone interview. “We’re here to help and we’re here to stay.”
The attack came six months after the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, made a surprise visit to Mogadishu in December, promising to relocate the UN political office for Somalia from Nairobi, Kenya, where it was based for security reasons. The United Nations had been increasing the number of staff members before the attack.
“We heard the explosion. We heard gunfire. We could see security deploying pretty quickly,” said Ben Parker, a spokesman for the United Nations in Somalia, who was in a meeting nearby at the time of the attack.
Parker said that dozens of UN staff members and contractors were inside the compound, which houses relief and development operations. Most made it to a secure bunker in the compound. It was unclear how many were killed or wounded.
Vuyelwa Qinga, a spokeswoman for the South African defense company Denel, confirmed that two employees, both South Africans, were among those killed Wednesday.
The tactics used by the group were similar to those in a deadly attack on the Mogadishu court complex in April, which killed at least 30 people. In that attack, as in the one Wednesday, a suicide bombing was followed by an armed assault.
In February, a popular seafood restaurant at the city’s Lido Beach was bombed. A sports bar and the National Theater were attacked last year.
Security had improved in Mogadishu since Al Shabab was driven out that growing numbers of Somalis living abroad had returned to the capital to aid in reconstruction. Businesspeople have arrived in greater numbers, and Turkey and Britain reopened embassies.
The attack Wednesday raised the question of whether security gains were fleeting, given Al Shabab’s capacity for staging large-scale, complex strikes at well-defended targets.
“We know we are a target. We always know that,” said a UN official who was nearby at the time of the attack but was not authorized to comment publicly. “It was never a secret that they were always trying to attack the UN.”
Clan warlords overthrew the government in 1991, breaking the country into militia-controlled fiefs and sending it into decades of chaos.
Fighting between rival clans in the southern city of Kismayu earlier this month also raised concerns that gains against Al Shabab could be offset by renewed hostilities between warlords.