MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) – Assailants fired mortar shells at the Mogadishu airport as a plane carrying an American congressman took off, a police officer said. The plane departed safely, but 19 Somalis were reported wounded in surrounding residential areas.

U.S. Rep. Don Payne, chairman of the House subcommittee on Africa, said he didn’t learn of the shelling until his plane landed in Nairobi, Kenya, after the flight from Mogadishu, one of the most dangerous cities in the world.

Payne, a Democrat from New Jersey, told CNN that he traveled to Somalia alone on a commercial flight. He confirmed the State Department’s report that he had been warned of the security problems in Somalia, an unstable country with a history of violence, but said he felt the visit was necessary.

“I believe that a stable Somalia is really a key to a stable Africa,” he said.

Nearly every building in Mogadishu is crumbling or pockmarked with bullet holes. Foreigners rarely travel there, and when they do they travel under armed guard and in convoys.

Payne told reporters before leaving Mogadishu that he met with Somalia’s president and prime minister during his one-day visit to discuss piracy, security and cooperation between Somalia and the U.S. The congressman held a news conference in the presidential palace, which itself has frequently been targeted in mortar attacks.

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.

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 Washington, State Department spokesman Robert Wood said Payne received a briefing on Mogadishu’s security problems and chose to go anyway.

“We provided the congressman with a briefing and gave him a very frank and straightforward assessment of the security situation,” Wood said.

Payne’s brother William, in Newark, N.J., said he heard about the mortar attack from his brother’s congressional office in Washington and from New Jersey’s Department of Homeland Security.

He said the congressman left the U.S. on Friday and planned to talk with leaders in Mogadishu about ways the U.S. can help stabilize Somalia. The war-ravaged country has lacked an effective government for 18 years and is split among competing militias.

The congressman would have been looking for ways to work with Somali leaders to help the U.S. ship and crew that were attacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia, William Payne said.

“The whole family is real worried about him,” Payne said. “He left here while the pirate situation was going on and would have been involved in it.”

A five-day standoff over the hijacked ship ended late Sunday when U.S. Navy snipers killed three Somali pirates and freed the American sea captain being held at gunpoint.

“We’re trying to find out more right now,” William Payne said. “Until I hear from my brother I won’t be satisfied.”

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