MOGADISHU // A spokesman for Somalia's al Shabaab rebels denied today that the group was behind a suicide bombing at a medical graduation ceremony that killed at least 22 people, including three government ministers. Doctors, students and their parents were among the dead at Mogadishu's Shamo Hotel following Thursday's attack, which was the worst in the failed Horn of Africa state for five months. Suspicion had immediately fallen on the hardline al Shabaab group, which is battling the Western-backed government to impose its harsh interpretation of Islamic law across the country. "We declare that al Shabaab did not mastermind that explosion ... we believe it is a plot by the government itself," al Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage said. "It is not in the nature of al Shabaab to target innocent people."
Rage said serious political rifts had emerged between senior figures in President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed's administration, which controls little more than a few strategic areas of the capital. "You know there is a power struggle ... that has been going on a long time," the insurgent spokesman said. "We know some so-called government officials left the scene of the explosion just minutes before the attack. That is why it is clear that they were behind the killing." Western security agencies said Somalia has become a safe haven for militants, including foreign jihadists, who are using it to plot attacks across the impoverished region and beyond. The UN special envoy to Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, said insurgents had been behind most of the recent high profile acts of violence to afflict the nation. "I think it is outrageous to suggest now that behind this killing is not the same group that killed the security minister, that attacked AMISOM (peacekeepers), that has stoned women and children to death," he said. The United States accuses al Shabaab, the only Somali rebel group to have launched suicide attacks in the past, of being al Qa'eda's proxy in the drought-ravaged country. In June, al Shabaab said it was behind a suicide bombing in Baladwayne town that killed Somalia's security minister and at least 30 other people. Then in September it struck the heart of the African Union's main military base in Mogadishu with twin suicide car bombs, killing 17 AMISOM peacekeepers. Fighting has killed at least 19,000 Somali civilians since the start of 2007 and driven another 1.5 million from their homes. The chaos has also spilt offshore, where heavily armed Somali pirates have made tens of millions of dollars in ransoms. * Reuters