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Inside Somalia: Under fire in Mogadishu

Al Shabaab rebels attack presidential offices during celebrations to mark 1 year in office.

Somalia defines the term failed state. This GlobalPost series includes accounts of being on guard duty with African Union peacekeepers, an investigation into the Al Shabaab rebels, a look at Somalia's revered poetry and an analysis of when Somalia will improve.

MOGADISHU, Somalia — Somalia President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed planned festive celebrations to mark his first year in office and progress made toward establishing peace and stability in the war-racked country.

But Al Shabaab — the Islamic rebels allied with Al Qaeda — had other ideas.

Mogadishu was hit by the worst fighting in months on Jan. 29 as the insurgents marked the anniversary of the Somali president’s first year in power with a series of violent attacks that elicited an equally deadly response.

Al Shabaab, the Islamic extremists allied with Al Qaeda, attacked government positions protected by African Union peacekeepers (AMISOM) in a concerted salvo against a weak and largely ineffectual administration.

Somalia has been without a functioning government since 1991 when the last one, a military dictatorship, collapsed after a three-year civil war. Since then the country has been without a functioning government. Mogadishu was where the infamous Black Hawk Down incident occurred in 1993, in which 18 U.S. soldiers died. In recent years Somalia's lawless state has allowed piracy to flourish along the Indian Ocean coast. Somali pirates have hijacked scores of ships for millions of dollars in ransom. 

Early last year a new United Nations-backed government was sworn in and with it came hopes that Somalia may take a few faltering steps toward peace. Instead a fresh insurgency began in May and the government has been under siege ever since.

From 2 a.m. onward the regular thump of mortars and bursts of machine gun fire shattered the night. Later came the ear-rending bangs of tank fire as African Union peacekeepers pushed back Al Shabaab fighters who were attacking government positions and peacekeeping detachments across the city.

There was a lull in the gunfire and shelling mid-morning when GlobalPost crossed town to watch President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed’s anniversary celebrations at Villa Somalia, his fortified presidential palace on a hilltop overlooking Mogadishu.

The program was to include choirs, poetry, comic theater and speeches. Ahmed, 43, sat in a huge leather and lacquered wood armchair flanked by his prime minister and the speaker of Parliament.

The whitewashed walls of the hall were hung with handmade banners congratulating the president on his first 12 months in office. A crowd of hundreds of dignitaries, government officials and well-wishers were seated on plastic chairs facing the wooden stage.

These sorts of ceremonies are a rarity in Mogadishu, a city that has been destroyed by rounds of civil war that have lasted more than 20 years, so this was supposed to be a moment of celebration and a declaration of the government’s intent to return the city to normality.

But President Ahmed’s enemies had other plans. Shortly before 11 a.m. a mortar exploded at a checkpoint at the entrance to Villa Somalia, the sprawling presidential compound.