MOGADISHU - A suicide bomber killed at least 19 people including three Somali government ministers on Thursday at a 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 hardline al Shabaab rebels 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 ahead of 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 2003-2005. 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.
Government officials said Health Minister Qamar Aden Ali, Education Minister Ahmed Abdulahi Waayeel and Higher Education Minister Ibrahim Hassan Addow all died in the explosion. Sports Minister Saleban Olad Roble was critically injured.
The African Union peacekeeping force AMISOM said the blast was caused by a suicide bomber and 19 civilians were killed.
Ali Yasin Gedi, vice-chairman of Mogadishu-based Elman Peace and Human Rights Organisation, said more than 40 people were wounded, including the dean of Benadir's medical college, who Gedi said had been evacuated by plane to neighbouring Kenya.
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.
AL QAEDA'S PROXY
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.
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 is fighting to impose its harsh version of sharia law throughout Somalia.
Western security experts say the nation has become a safe haven for militants, including jihadists from overseas, who are using it to plot attacks across the region and beyond.
Al Shabaab has threatened to strike Uganda's capital Kampala and Burundi's capital Bujumbura because both nations contribute troops to the 5,200-strong AU peacekeeping force AMISOM.
Kenyan security forces say they are on high alert on 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 members of another Somali rebel group, Hizbul Islam, and seized 20 AK-47 rifles at Kiunga, on the coast near Somalia and close to the A-list resort island of Lamu.
A senior anti-terrorism source told Reuters the men appeared to have fled advancing Shabaab forces and may have been bringing in guns to sell to local criminals to survive.
Fighting has killed at least 19,000 Somalis since the start of 2007 and driven another 1.5 million from their homes.
The anarchy has also spilt offshore, where heavily armed Somali pirates have made tens of millions of dollars in ransoms.
Only an intense engagement by the region and international partners will give a chance of success in Somalia, but some countries are clearly more preoccupied with their internal concerns, Kenya's Kiplagat said, citing forthcoming elections in Ethiopia, turmoil in Sudan and political wrangles in Kenya.
(Additional reporting by Abdi Sheikh in Mogadishu, Abdiaziz Hassan in Nairobi, Celestine Achieng in Mombasa and William Maclean in London; Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by David Clarke and Giles Elgood)