MOGADISHU – Islamist militants detonated a truck bomb Tuesday in front of the education ministry in Somalia's capital as students and parents crowded around to learn about scholarships, killing at least 70 people and wounding dozens, officials said.
It was the deadliest bomb attack in Somalia by al-Shabab, an al-Qaeda-linked group that began its insurgency five years ago. It also was the first significant attack in the capital since al-Shabab withdrew most of its gunmen in August amid an offensive by African Union forces, which is protecting the weak UN-backed government.
The truck blew up at a security checkpoint at the entrance to the Ministry of Education, said Ali Hussein, a police officer in Mogadishu. After the thunderous blast, blackened corpses were sprawled on the debris-strewn street amid burning vehicles. One woman used a blue plastic bucket to pour water on a smouldering body.
Abdiqadir Muhyadin, who works at the information ministry, lost a finger in the explosion. He said the vehicle initially appeared to have lost control and smashed through the security barrier before it exploded at the gate.
"Dozens of dead bodies and human flesh were scattered all over the area. A dead body fell over me," he said.
Ali Abdullahi, a nurse at Medina hospital, said they were treating people with amputated limbs and burns, and patients who became blinded.
"It is the most awful tragedy I have ever seen," he said. "Imagine dozens are being brought here minute by minute. Most of the wounded people are unconscious and others have their faces blackened by smoke and heat."
Ali Muse, the chief of Mogadishu's ambulance service, told The Associated Press that at least 70 people had died and at least 42 others were wounded.
"The explosion has not only affected the targeted place, but even passer-by people and car passengers died there. The death toll may increase and we are still carrying many dead bodies" he said. "It is the worst tragedy I have ever seen in the capital."
In a statement, the government gave a death toll of 15. It was not immediately clear if it was an early count.
"The casualties are mostly students and parents who were waiting for results of scholarships from the Ministry of Higher Education," the government said. "The attack shows that the danger from terrorists is not yet over and that there are obviously still people, who want to derail the advances that the Somali people have made towards peace."
Al-Shabab immediately claimed responsibility for the attack on a website it uses.
"Our Mujahideen fighters have entered a place where ministers and AMISOM foreigners stay," al-Shabab said in a brief post on a website, referring to the Ugandan and Burundian forces who make up the African Union peacekeeping mission.
Suicide bombings were unheard of in Somalia before 2007 but have become increasingly frequent. Al-Shabab claims allegiance to al-Qaeda, which often uses car bombs and appears bent on gaining a greater foothold in the Horn of Africa.
Al-Shabab includes militant veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts who have trained Somalis in tactics like suicide bombs and sniper fire, and until recently hosted the most wanted al-Qaeda operative in Africa. Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, al-Qaeda's top operative in East Africa, was killed by a Somali government soldier at a security checkpoint in the capital in June.
Mohammed was the mastermind behind the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Al-Shabab carried out a double suicide bombing in Uganda in July 2010 that killed 76 people watching the World Cup final on television. Americans of Somali heritage also have joined the group.
In 2009, a suicide bomber attacked a university graduation ceremony in Mogadishu, killing 24 people, including three government ministers, medical students and doctors.
Somalia has endured mostly anarchy for the last two decades. The nation is gripped by famine, which is mostly affecting southern parts of the country controlled by al-Shabab. The UN estimates tens of thousands have died in Somalia and nearby countries from the famine and that 750,000 people are in danger of dying over the next few months.