HARGEISA, Somalia (Reuters) - A wave of suicide bombings killed at least 28 people across northern Somalia on Wednesday in five attacks that snatched attention from political crisis talks taking place in neighboring Kenya.
No group immediately claimed responsibility. But suspicion fell on Islamist al Shabaab insurgents who have often launched attacks further south to coincide with international efforts to end turmoil in the lawless Horn of Africa nation.
The car bombers struck as Somalia’s interim government leaders met regional heads of state in Nairobi. The four-year-old administration is under pressure to end the chaos and share some power with moderate opposition figures.
Washington, the Somali government and its military backer Ethiopia say the rebels are linked to al Qaeda.
“We have our suspects ... the extremists who want to destabilize even the peaceful areas,” Ali Ahmed Jama, the Somali Foreign Minister, told Reuters at the meeting.
“They wanted to convey a message that they can reach everywhere ... Usually they seek soft targets.”
Twenty people died at Ethiopia’s embassy in Hargeisa, capital of the breakaway region of Somaliland, and at least five others were killed in synchronized blasts at the local president’s office and a U.N. Development Program building.
Journalist Ali Jama Mohamed was walking past the presidency when a car crashed into its doors.
“There was a big explosion and I saw many people, mostly pedestrians and some security guards, thrown to the floor. Some were dead and others wounded,” Mohamed said.
At the same time, at least three more people died when two suicide car bombers wrecked an intelligence headquarters in Bosasso, in the neighboring semi-autonomous region of Puntland.
The United States blamed Osama bin Laden’s network, which Washington says operates through al Shabaab in Somalia.
“This has the look of an al Qaeda strike,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Jendayi Frazer said in Nairobi. “There is a serious terrorist threat in the Horn of Africa.”
Both Somaliland and Puntland had been relatively quiet in recent months compared to the south, so Wednesday’s coordinated blasts would be a major expansion north for al Shabaab.
The group has previously launched big attacks during mediation efforts in moves analysts say are calculated to show the world who is in control on the ground.
When the government and some opposition figures signed a peace pact at U.N.-led negotiations in Djibouti in August, Shabaab fighters seized the strategic southern port of Kismayu in battles that killed at least 70 people.
“Tensions are high and Puntland soldiers have surrounded all government institutions,” Muse Gelle, the governor of Bari region, told Reuters in Bosasso after the bombing there.
Violence in Somalia has killed nearly 10,000 civilians since the start of last year and forced more than a million from their homes, triggering an aid crisis and driving governments in the region and donor nations to despair.
The five east African heads of state gathered in Nairobi on Wednesday expressed deep concern at the “near hopelessness of the existing situation” and said internal feuds in the government were the main cause of the crisis.
But they said in a statement that they would consider extending its mandate — which is due to expire in August 2009 — on the strict condition that quick progress be seen in areas including political reconciliation and security.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has several thousand troops in Somalia supporting the government, but has become increasingly frustrated by the delays. He told the meeting the United Nations should be playing a much bigger role.
“What has been striking...has been the way the Security Council has found it difficult to do something for an African country which appears, by all objective yardsticks, the most deserving of consideration,” Meles said.
Additional reporting by Guled Mohamed in Nairobi, Abdiqani Hassan in Bosasso, Abdi Sheikh in Mogadishu and Andrew Cawthorne in Nairobi; Writing by Daniel Wallis