Italian nun slain in Somalia, Pope link speculation

Mogadishu, Somalia - Gunmen killed an Italian nun at a children's hospital in Mogadishu on Sunday in an attack that drew immediate speculation of links to Muslim anger over the Pope's recent remarks on Islam.

The Catholic nun's guard also died from pistol shots in the latest attack on foreign personnel in volatile Somalia.

The assassinations were a blow to Mogadishu's new Islamist rulers' attempt to prove they have pacified one of the world's most lawless cities since chasing out warlords in June.

The bodyguard died instantly, but the nun, from the Missionaries of the Consolation order based in Nepi near Rome, was rushed into an operating theater after being hit by three or four bullets in the chest, stomach and back.

"She died in the hospital treatment room," doctor Ali Mohamed Hassan told Reuters. "She was shot outside the hospital, going to her house just across the gate."

A nun from the Missionaries order identified her as sister Leonella Sgorbati, born in 1940, in Piacenza in northern Italy. In Somalia since 2002, she trained nurses at the SOS Kindergarten hospital.

The Italian government said the nun and two other Italian nuns working with her had been repeatedly advised to leave Somalia, which was formerly ruled by Italy.

Sunday's death provoked scenes of mourning at the hospital.

"I was in class when I heard about six to eight shots, I ran out and saw sister bleeding," Fatuma Hassan, 21, told Reuters.

"We're so sad. It's a big loss."

Two suspects were later arrested by Islamist militiamen, but there were no details of their identity.


One top Islamist source told Reuters there was "a very high possibility" the attack was linked to controversy over a recent speech by Pope Benedict which angered Muslims who thought it showed their religion to be innately violent.

A senior Somali cleric interviewed by reporters could not provide any further clues behind the motive for the shooting, but said the Pope's comments cast Islam in the wrong light.

"The Pope's sentiments are part of the wrong misinterpretation against Islam by America,

Israel, Britain and Russia," Sheikh Nur Barud, a senior Somali cleric said. "They insult the Muslim world, kill Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine, their leader is (U.S. President George W.) Bush and the Pope is part of it."

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi told Italian news agency ANSA he hoped the nun's death was an isolated event but feared it was "the fruit of violence and irrationality arising from the current situation (of Pope), which is without motive or reason."

But in Italy, a nun from Sgorbati's order who asked not to be named said: "We have no reason to suspect any link."

She added: "There were no threats, we had no reason to expect something like this, though of course there are risks."

Borne out of local courts practicing strict sharia law, Somalia's Islamist movement in June seized Mogadishu from U.S.-backed warlords who had run it for the past 15 years.

Though the Islamists have managed to get guns off the streets and bring down roadblocks often run by young, erratic militiamen loyal to warlords, Mogadishu remains full of weapons.

The nun's death -- and the June killing of a Swedish cameraman -- damage their claim that Mogadishu is now safe for foreigners.

Critics of the Islamists say they harbour al Qaeda-linked militants in their ranks. The Islamists deny that, saying the West does not understand them and believes U.S. propaganda.

Islamist spokesman Bedri Hashi said the killing may have been "orchestrated by people to discredit the Islamic Courts."

The Italian nun was the latest in a list of foreign aid workers and other international staff to be killed in Somalia.

Another Italian aid worker, Annalena Tonelli, was shot dead in the self-declared enclave of Somaliland in 2003.

The Islamists are engaged in a political standoff with the Western-backed interim government of Somalia which is based in Baidoa and has little military muscle of its own.

(Additional reporting by Andrew Cawthorne in Nairobi, Mike Holden in London, Massimiliano Di Giorgio in Rome)