MOGADISHU, Somalia – Gunmen killed an Italian nun and her bodyguard Sunday at the entrance of the hospital where she worked, officials said — an attack some feared could be linked to Muslim anger toward Pope Benedict XVI.
The nun, who has not been identified, was shot in the back four times by two gunmen armed with pistols, Dr. Mohamed Yusef told The Associated Press.
The shootings occurred midday Sunday at the Austrian-run S.O.S. hospital for women and children in volatile northern Mogadishu, witnesses and hospital officials said.
One person has been arrested and a search was under way for a second man, Yusuf Mohamed Siad, head of security for the Islamic courts now controlling the capital, told the AP.
The nun, who was believed to be around age 60, had been working at the hospital since 2002, colleagues said.
Like many foreigners, she traveled with a bodyguard in Somalia, a Horn of Africa nation that sank into anarchy after warlords overthrew the country's longtime dictator in 1991.
In June, a Swedish journalist, Martin Adler, was fatally shot while covering a demonstration in Mogadishu. Italian aid worker Annalena Tonelli was shot dead in 2003 in the breakaway republic of Somaliland.
In recent months, Islamic fundamentalists have seized control of the capital and much of the south of Somalia, imposing strict religious rule. The Islamic courts are credited with bringing a semblance of order to the country, but many in the West fear the emergence of a Taliban-style regime.
Several witnesses blamed Sunday's shooting on the recent controversy over a speech the Benedict made in Germany on Tuesday in which he quoted a Medieval text calling the Prophet Muhammad's teachings "evil and inhuman."
"I am sure the killers were angered by the pope's speech in which he attacked our prophet," said Ashe Ahmed Ali, one of the many who witnessed the shooting.
Earlier Sunday, a leading Muslim cleric in Somalia condemned the pope for offending Muslims.
"The pope's statement at this time was not only wrong but irresponsible as well," said Sheik Nor Barud, deputy leader of the Somali Muslim Scholars Association.
"Both the pope and the Byzantine emperor he quoted are ignorant of Islam and its noble prophet," he told reporters at a news conference in Mogadishu.
In Italy, Benedict said Sunday he was "deeply sorry" about the reaction to his remarks, saying the text he quoted did not reflect his personal opinion.
Siad, the Islamic courts' head of security, said the motive for the shooting death was unclear.
"They could be people annoyed by the pope's speech, which angered all Muslims in the world, or they could have been having something to do with S.O.S," he said. "We will have to clarify this through our investigation."
A Vatican spokesman called the nun's slaying "a horrible episode," the Italian news agency ANSA said.
"Let's hope that it will be an isolated fact," the Rev. Federico Lombardi said, expressing hopes for an end to the Muslim anger over Benedict's comments.
The Vatican is "following with concern the consequences of this wave of hate, hoping that it does not lead to grave consequences for the church in the world," he was quoted as saying.
The nun, known as Sister Leonella, helped to teach and look after children, said a colleague who gave his name as Dr. Teckle.
"She was a dedicated and organized teacher," he said. Her body was being flown to Nairobi, Kenya, before being returned to Italy, he said.
A Somali doctor who was acquainted with the nun said she had worked for 38 years in Nairobi and Mogadishu.
"She was welcome here in Mogadishu," Dr. Asha Omar Ahmed told Italy's SKY TG24 TV. "She had just conducted a (nursing school) lesson and was going home. She was opening the gate when she was shot."
Earlier Sunday, two gunmen were killed in clashes near Dobley town in southern Somalia between Islamic militias and fighters allied with the government, witnesses said.
Tensions have been high since militias entered the regional capital, Kismayo, on Thursday. The town, 420 kilometers (260 miles) southwest of Mogadishu, is one of the last remaining ports not controlled by Islamic militias.