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Rebels target new Somali president with mortars

MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Rebels fired mortar bombs at the presidential palace in Mogadishu on Saturday hours after Somalia’s new President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed returned to the capital following his election at U.N.-led talks in Djibouti.

Sheikh Sharif Ahmed (C), former leader of the opposition Alliance for Re-Liberation of Somalia (ARS) and the new President of Somalia, speaks to the media upon his arrival in Mogadishu February 7, 2009. REUTERS/Mowliid Abdi

Ahmed has promised to build on his record of bringing security when his Islamist forces ruled much of the country, which has been racked by war for 18 years.

African Union peacekeepers said the attack was intended to provoke return fire.

“We just ignored them,” Major Barigye Ba-Hoku, spokesman for the AU’s small AMISOM mission in the city, told Reuters.

“They are provocative and expect us to respond but we are not ready to. They want an excuse to accuse AMISOM of attacking civilians. We never do that.”

A government security officer said several mortars were fired at the hilltop Villa Somalia palace, but no one was hurt.

Abdullahi Qadar, an official working for the new president, said Ahmed had ordered government forces and the AU peacekeepers not to return fire to avoid civilian casualties.

Ahmed, a moderate, headed a sharia courts group that brought some stability to Mogadishu and most of southern Somalia in 2006, before Washington’s main regional ally Ethiopia invaded to oust them. Ethiopia’s military withdrew last month, clearing the way for Ahmed’s election in Djibouti a week ago.

Ahmed was then feted at a Feb. 1-4 African Union summit hosted this week by Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi -- whose army drove his Islamists from power just two years ago.

He said he and Meles had agreed to work together for a better Horn of Africa and for an end to conflict in the region.

The hardline al Shabaab group, which is on Washington’s list of foreign terrorist groups, said before the vote it would start a new campaign of hit-and-run attacks on the government -- whoever came to power.

Additional reporting by Abdi Guled