NAIROBI // A bomb blast rocked a hotel in the Somali capital yesterday, killing at least 19 people including three government ministers, witnesses and officials said. Residents had gathered at the Shamo hotel in Mogadishu, Somalia's war-torn capital, for a medical university graduation ceremony when the bomb exploded. Officials said the attack was the work of a suicide bomber.
Initial suspicion for the blast fell on al Shabab, a hard-line Islamist insurgency that has been fighting to topple the weak central government. The group was responsible for a suicide attack on an African Union peacekeeping base in September that killed 21. Yesterday's attack killed Qamar Aden Ali, the health minister, Ahmed Abdulahi Waayeel, the education minister, and Ibrahim Hassan Addow, the higher education minister, a government source said. Saleban Olad Roble, the sports minister, was injured. A cameraman for Dubai-based Al Arabiya Television and a local radio journalist also died in the blast.
Witnesses described a horrific scene with body parts strewn about the hotel. Most of the victims were students. "A lot of my friends were killed," Mohamed Abdulqadir, a medical student, 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." A local photographer with Agence France-Presse was injured in the attack.
"We were waiting outside the conference room when there was a huge explosion," Mohamed Dahir, the photographer, said according to AFP. "I found myself on the ground in the middle of the smoke and screaming. I went to get my camera, and that's when I saw the bodies of the three ministers." Reporters Without Borders, a press freedom group, condemned the bombing. "With violence at a peak in Somalia, journalists who try to cover the country's chaotic political situation are living a nightmare," the organisation said. "Those who masterminded this cowardly bombing are responsible for the deaths of these two journalists. The use of blind violence must stop and should be condemned by all parties to the conflict."
The government is stepping up security after the bombing, a security official in the president's office said by telephone from Mogadishu. "It is a major incident," said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak publicly. "Of course it shook us. We are stepping up security. We are not going to give up until the insurgents are defeated." Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign policy chief, condemned the attack and pledged an international response to Somalia's problems.
"I condemn in the strongest terms possible this cowardly attack against civilians including students, doctors and journalists," she said in a statement. A spokesman for the AU mission, Amisom, said that peace keepers were not close to the incident when it happened. The mission has about 5,000 troops from Uganda and Burundi protecting the government and key installations. "Amisom was not involved," Col Adolphe Manirakiza said by telephone from Mogadishu. "We were not in the area."
At least 60 peacekeepers have been killed since they were deployed in March 2007. Wafula Wamunyini, the acting head of Amisom, told AFP that the peace keepers will not withdraw despite the attacks. "We want to ensure everyone we are going to continue with our mission," he said. "We are going to continue providing our services. Nobody seems to appreciate that Amisom has accomplished a lot." Somalia's government controls only a few city blocks of Mogadishu with the help of AU peace keepers. The rest of the country is lawless or in the hands of al Shabab or other factions. Western countries have labelled al Shabab a terrorist organisation with ties to al Qa'eda. Intelligence experts say the group has hundreds of foreign fighters from south and central Asia in its ranks.
"Those fighters have been hardened by different wars," Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, the prime minister, said in an interview with The National from Mogadishu last week. "They have fought in Afghanistan, they have fought in Iraq. They have fought in Bosnia and in Kosovo. They have a capability of urban warfare. They have resorted to what they are good at: suicide bombs, assassinations and sometimes throwing some mortars into government areas."
Thousands of people have been killed in Mogadishu in recent years as Islamists battle for control of the capital. The insurgents launched a fresh offensive against the government on May 7 which has forced more than 150,000 to flee the city. Somalia has been without a stable government since warlords ousted Siad Barre, the former dictator, in 1991. The lawlessness on land has sparked a rise in piracy off Somalia's coast, which has seen more than 200 pirate attacks this year.