Somalia’s al-Qaeda-linked rebels, al-Shabaab, struck at the heart of the capital Mogadishu on Tuesday, killing at least 65 people with a truck bomb in the group’s most deadly single attack since launching an insurgency in 2007.
Witnesses said a truck exploded at the gate of a compound housing government ministries in the K4 area of Mogadishu, where students and parents had gathered to await the results of scholarship exams.
“We have carried 65 dead bodies and 50 injured people,” ambulance coordinator Ali Muse told Reuters. “Some are still lying there. Most of the people have burns.”
Hundreds of parents stood weeping outside the Madina Hospital in Mogadishu after being denied access for security reasons. Reporters were also turned away and nurses said they were overwhelmed with casualties.
Al-Shabaab insurgents, who claimed responsibility for Tuesday’s bombing, pulled most of their fighters out of Mogadishu in August allowing government troops and African Union soldiers to seize much of the coastal capital.
But the rebels said they had just changed their tactics and vowed to still carry out attacks on government installations.
Paddy Ankunda, spokesman for the African Union force (AMISOM) in Somalia, said students and government soldiers were among the dead.
Shabaab claim responsibility
The blast destroyed kiosks near the compound and burned the facades of government buildings. Debris from the explosion landed hundreds of meters away.
Scores of people with burns were seen walking to a nearby hospital and police were trying to evacuate more students trapped inside the damaged buildings.
Muse said it looked as though the truck had been packed with petrol and explosives. He said students, soldiers and civilians were among the dead.
“Al-Shabaab carried out that attack,” a spokesman for the insurgents told Reuters. “Our target was the ministries.”
Some analysts said they were worried the attack might prompt some international agencies helping famine victims in Somalia to pull out, leaving operations in the hands of local organizations prone to corruption or theft by militias.
“Most humanitarian agencies were complaining about lack of security and this might put off international agencies from going anywhere near Mogadishu now,” said Hamza Mohamed, a London-based Somali analyst. “This is my worst fear now.”
“Since the withdrawal of Shabaab from Mogadishu we have been increasingly concerned with a shift towards more asymmetric attacks and terrorist-style actions,” a U.N. official said.
“We’ve been warning for a long time the situation there is still fragile, a security sector capable of defending against these attacks has yet to be ‘stood up’, AMISOM is stretched and in desperate need of additional resources,” he told Reuters.
The attack also comes at a time the government has just embarked on a 12-month political road map which is supposed to lead to elections for a new parliament and president by Aug. 20 next year.
“The attack shows that the danger from terrorists is not yet over and that there are obviously still people who want to derail the advances that the Somali people have made towards peace,” the government said in a statement.
Earlier, witnesses said that Somalia’s Islamist rebels attacked and briefly seized the main stronghold town of a rival militia that backs the country’s transitional government.
The Shabaab insurgents raided the central town of Dhusamareb, seat of the Ahlu Sunna Wal Jamaa movement, late on Monday, sparking a brief firefight, according to AFP.
The Shabaab raided a radio station and seized equipment in their first attack against their rivals in months.
“The Shabaab made a surprise offensive late Monday and remained in Dhusamareb for hours before they withdrew,” local resident Abdullahi Yasiin said.
Another resident, Hassan Elmi, said the Shabaab left the town before midnight Monday.
“I saw the Shabaab gunmen leaving before and the Ahlu Sunna forces arrived,” he said.
In August, the hardline insurgents pulled out of the capital Mogadishu where they had been fighting to topple the Western-backed transitional government and retreated to southern and central Somali regions under their control.
The Somali government, the Ahlu Sunna Wal-Jamaa and authorities of the breakaway northern Puntland region last month launched a new bid to restore government control in the Horn of African state battered by 20 years of relentless conflict.