MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Insurgents detonated two suicide car bombs at an African Union (AU) peacekeeping base in Mogadishu on Thursday, witnesses said, days after the rebels vowed to avenge the U.S. killing of a top al Qaeda suspect.
A Reuters reporter saw six wounded soldiers being carried away from the site of the explosions, some bleeding heavily, while thick smoke poured into the sky over Somalia's capital.
It looked to be the worst attack on the peacekeepers since 11 Burundians were killed by rebel mortar shells in February, and it followed one of the most violent months the bullet-scarred city has seen in 20 years.
A local security source said the blasts were caused by suicide car bombs, and a witness at the AU-guarded airport said two cars with U.N. markings entered the base before blowing up.
Residents had earlier speculated that the coastal base had been attacked by missiles. Rebels regularly fire artillery at the AU troops of the 5,000-strong peacekeeping force AMISOM.
Thursday's bombings came as al Shabaab insurgents holding a French security consultant hostage issued demands in return for his release, including an immediate end to French support for the Horn of Africa nation's government.
The rebel ultimatum was issued three days after U.S. special forces killed one of the continent's most wanted al Qaeda suspects in a helicopter raid on a convoy carrying foreign members of the al Shabaab rebel group in southern Somalia.
The French hostage is one of two security consultants kidnapped by gunmen in Mogadishu in July. His colleague managed to escape on Aug. 26.
In return for his release, al Shabaab demanded the "immediate cessation of any political or military support to the apostate government of Somalia and the withdrawal of all its security advisers in Somalia", the rebels said in a statement.
AL QAEDA SUSPECT KILLED
They demanded the withdrawal of the AU troops supporting President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed's administration and the departure of French warships trying to stamp out piracy in Somali waters.
The insurgents' statement also called for the release of mujahideen prisoners in countries to be named later.
Fighting in Somalia has killed more than 18,000 civilians since the start of 2007 and left another 1.5 million homeless.
Western security agencies say the country has become a safe haven for militants, including foreign jihadists, who are using it to plot attacks across the region and beyond.
This week, U.S. commandos killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, the 28-year-old Kenyan who was said to have built the truck bomb that claimed 15 lives at an Israeli-owned beach hotel in Kenya in 2002. He was also wanted over a simultaneous, but botched, missile attack on an Israeli airliner leaving nearby Mombasa.
Nabhan was allied with al Shabaab, which Washington accuses of being al Qaeda's proxy in Somalia.
Residents in the al Shabaab-held southern port of Kismayu said on Thursday that Islamist gunmen went house-to-house arresting Somalis they accused of spying for the United States.
Fighters from another Islamist insurgent group, Hizbul Islam, had been holding the other French security consultant prisoner in Mogadishu until he was able to escape last month.
Police said the former hostage had killed three of his captors, but Marc Aubriere denied killing anyone and said he slipped away while his guards slept and then walked across the city for hours until reaching the presidential palace.
Many Somalis speculated that al Shabaab would take revenge for Nabhan's death by executing the other French hostage. In the statement, al Shabaab vowed to continue its campaign.
(Additional reporting by Abdi Sheikh; Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Jon Hemming)