MOGADISHU (Reuters) - A suicide bomber disguised as a veiled woman killed at least 19 people including three Somali government ministers on Thursday at a medical graduation ceremony in a Mogadishu hotel, witnesses and officials said.
It was the worst attack in the lawless Horn of Africa nation since June, when hard-line al Shabaab insurgents killed the security minister and at least 30 other people in a suicide bombing at a hotel in the town of Baladwayne.
The U.N.-backed government of President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed controls little more than a few streets of the capital. In the days before Thursday’s attack, residents said it had apparently been planning a new offensive against the rebels.
The bombing showed once again the insurgents’ ability to strike the government at will, and it will heighten frustration in the country’s fragile administration over delayed pledges of military and financial support from Western donors.
“Suicide bombings are a worrying trend not only for Somalia but also the region. There has been a rise in fundamentalism in Somalia coming from the Middle East and Pakistan,” said Bethuel Kiplagat, Kenya’s special envoy to the Somalia peace process from 2003 to 2005. “There’s a worry al Qaeda may be looking at Somalia as a new sanctuary.”
A Reuters reporter at the Shamo Hotel said it was packed with graduates from Benadir University, their parents and officials when a powerful blast tore through the ceremony.
“Human flesh was everywhere,” he said.
Witnesses said the bomber entered the function disguised as a veiled woman and then sat listening to the speeches for some time before approaching the podium and blowing himself up.
Police later showed journalists pictures of his mangled corpse.
Somalia’s female health minister, Qamar Aden Ali, Education Minister Ahmed Abdulahi Waayeel and Higher Education Minister Ibrahim Hassan Addow all died in the explosion, officials said. Sports Minister Saleban Olad Roble was critically injured.
In New York, the U.N. Security Council issued a unanimous statement condemning what it described as a “terrorist attack ... on people dedicated to building a peaceful, stable and prosperous future for the people of Somalia.”
The African Union peacekeeping force AMISOM said 19 civilians were killed. A local rights group said more than 40 were wounded, including the dean of Benadir’s medical college.
“A lot of my friends were killed,” medical student Mohamed Abdulqadir told Reuters. “I was sitting next to a lecturer who also died. He had been speaking to the gathering just a few minutes before the explosion.”
Dubai-based Al Arabiya Television said one of its cameramen, Hasan al-Zubair, had been killed.
Suspicion for the blast immediately fell on the al Shabaab group, which also struck at the heart of the main AU military base in Mogadishu with twin suicide car bombs in September, killing 17 peacekeepers, including the deputy force commander.
The president told reporters his officials were unafraid.
“No one can intimidate us nor change our minds. ... We call on all Somalis to fight against their enemies to the end.”
A joint statement from the European Union, Arab League, United States and others denounced the “cold-blooded” attack on “young, enterprising Somalis (who) were marking what should have been a landmark occurrence in their young lives.”
Somali government officials say al Shabaab has hundreds of foreign fighters in its ranks and Washington accuses the Islamist group of being al Qaeda’s proxy in the country. It wants to impose its harsh version of sharia law across Somalia.
Western security experts say the impoverished nation has become a safe haven for militants, including jihadists from overseas, who use it to plot attacks in the region and beyond.
Kenyan security forces are on high alert along their frontier with Somalia after al Shabaab gunmen seized several small towns on the Somali side of the border in recent weeks.
On Thursday, Kenyan anti-terrorism police sources said they had arrested nine armed members of another Somali rebel group, Hizbul Islam, close to the A-list resort island of Lamu.
Fighting has killed at least 19,000 Somalis since the start of 2007 and driven 1.5 million from their homes. The anarchy has also spilled offshore, where heavily armed Somali pirates have made tens of millions of dollars in ransoms.
Additional reporting by Abdi Sheikh in Mogadishu, Abdiaziz Hassan in Nairobi, Celestine Achieng in Mombasa; William Maclean in London and Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by David Clarke and Elizabeth Fullerton