Assailants fired the mortar shells at the Mogadishu airport as a plane carrying the American congressman took off, a police officer said Monday. The plane departed safely, but 19 Somalis were reported wounded in surrounding residential areas.
Rep. Payne, who met with Somalia's top leaders during his one-day visit, said that he had no idea of the violence until reaching Kenya after the flight from Mogadishu, one of the most dangerous cities in the world and rarely visited by foreign travelers.
"We found out when we arrived in Nairobi," the chairman of the House subcommittee on Africa said. He said that the aircraft noise probably drowned out the sound of the mortars.
The Islamic extremist group al-Shabab later claimed responsibility for the mortar barrage in a statement posted on a militant Web site, according to the terrorism monitoring group SITE.
The group claimed it launched the attack after learning of Payne's visit, according to SITE. The militants, who have targeted peacekeepers in their attacks, strongly oppose the new Somali government. The U.S. State Department says its leaders have links to al-Qaida.
But the New Jersey Democrat expressed confidence that he was never in danger, saying the African Union troops did a good job with his security.
Payne and the officials discussed security, cooperation between Somalia and the U.S. and piracy even as a high-seas standoff between the U.S. and pirates who seized an American sea captain ended with U.S. Navy snipers killing three pirates and freeing the seaman.
"The pirates were one of the main topics of discussion that I had with the president and prime minister there," he said "They want to work with our government. They have a plan to reduce piracy, which they'll be presenting to the U.S. in the next two or three weeks."
Somalia has been without a functioning government since 1991 when clan warlords ousted a longtime dictator. The current government has failed to protect citizens. The U.N. imposed sanctions in an effort to stem the flow of arms into Somalia, a key cause of the mayhem.
He said the government leaders were hoping for an end to sanctions which they said would facilitate efforts to build an army.
"The way they say you defeat piracy is on the ground. You don't let them get out (to sea). They feel they have the ability to do it. They just need the resources," said Payne.
"If the U.S. and the world community take supportive action towards the fledgling government in Somalia, I am confident that they will succeed and a new Somalia will indeed emerge," Payne said in a separate statement.
None of the six mortar shells fired Monday landed on the airport as the plane carrying Payne took off safely, said Col. Mohamed Idi, a police officer at the airport.
Idi said the shells hit in nearby residential area. Medina Hospital administrator Ali Adde said 19 civilians, mostly women and children, were injured.
In 2007, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer became the highest-ranking American envoy to visit Somalia since 1993, when rebels shot down two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters in Mogadishu and battled American soldiers in a 12-hour firefight that left some 300 Somalis dead. The U.S. withdrew a year later.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Robert Wood said Payne received a briefing on Mogadishu's security problems and chose to go anyway.
Payne also said he was able to contact his family and let them know he was OK.