A male suicide bomber dressed as a woman attacked a graduation ceremony Thursday in a small part of the capital still under government control, killing 22 people, including three Cabinet ministers, doctors and medical students.
The attack was a severe blow to a country long battered by war and underscored the government's tenuous hold on even a small area of Mogadishu. African Union peacekeeping troops protecting the government wage near daily battles with Islamic militants who hold much of central and southern Somalia and act so brazenly in the capital that they carry out public executions.
"What happened today is a national disaster," said Somali Information Minister Dahir Mohamud Gelle, who confirmed that the ministers for education, higher education and health were killed in the blast. The ministers for sports and tourism also were wounded in the attack inside the Shamo Hotel, he said.
Medical school graduation
The assailants hit one of Somalia's most important efforts to extricate itself from anarchy and violence, explaining the presence of so many top government officials. The former medical students among the graduates came from only the second class to receive diplomas from the medical school.
The first class graduated a year ago. Before then, almost two decades has passed since anyone earned a medical degree in Somalia. In the December 2008 ceremony, held at the same hotel, the graduates proudly hoisted diplomas into the air. This year, there was mayhem as the bomb went off among 43 graduates, their families and officials who were sitting on plastic chairs facing a small stage, leaving the dead and wounded in bloody heaps.
More than 40 people were wounded. Students and doctors were among the dead.
No group immediately claimed responsibility, but suspicion fell upon the militant group al-Shabab, which has ties to al-Qaida, controls much of the country and has carried out past suicide attacks.
"A man who disguised himself as a woman, complete with a veil and a female's shoes, is behind the explosion," Gelle said. "We even have his picture."
Amateur video obtained by AP Television News shows a Somali official speaking to the gathered students and officials just as a large blast overpowered the scene and sent debris flying around the room. Afterward, the dead and wounded lay in pools of their own blood as others climb over the debris of the bombed-out room.
Soldiers pick through the wreckage with their hands, their AK-47 rifles slung over their shoulders. A wounded man in khaki colored trousers and white shirt sits calmly in his own blood. He twists his head and watches as those with more severe wounds are dragged out of the building.
Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya television said its Somali cameraman, Hassan Zubeir, died. Two other Somali journalists working for local outlets also died, said Bashir Khalif, a reporter for the Somali government's radio service.
Gelle said 22 people and the suicide bomber died.
Somalia's government announced three days of mourning after the president, prime minister and other top Somali officials held an emergency meeting at the presidential palace, said Somalia's ambassador to Kenya, Mohamed Ali Nur.
Nur said the Somali government "will not be weakened by such a barbaric, inhuman and un-Islamic attack."
"The hopes of many parents who eagerly awaited for their sons' graduation were recklessly dashed by anti-peace elements," Nur said. "Today should have been a day of celebration — not a mourning."
Hundreds gather in a ballroom
Several hundred people had gathered inside a decorated ballroom in the Shamo Hotel to celebrate the graduations of the medical, computer science and engineering students from Benadir University. The school was established in 2002 by Somali doctors who wanted to promote higher education. Medical degrees require six years of study.
The president of Benadir University said 43 students were taking part in the graduation ceremony. The university's Web site says more than 500 students are enrolled and that the school "strives to establish an open system of innovation and critical thinking similar to that in the developed countries."
The United Nations, the European Union and the African Union condemned the attack.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement that the attack marred "what should have been an event filled with hope for Somalia."
He said the attack underlines "how urgent it has become for the international community to accelerate its delivery of pledged support to Somali security institutions" and to the African Union peacekeeping mission in the country, U.N. deputy spokeswoman Marie Okabe said.
Somalia has been ravaged by violence and anarchy since warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, then turned on each other. A moderate Islamist was elected president in January in hopes that he could unite the country's feuding factions, but the violence has continued unabated.
In June, the national security minister died in a suicide bombing that killed at least 24. Al-Shabab claimed responsibility. In October, insurgents fired mortars at the airport as the president was boarding a plane, sparking battles that killed at least 24 people. Mortars also were fired toward the airport as he returned from his trip.
Before 2007, suicide bombings were unheard of in Somalia. In September, Islamic insurgents posing as U.N. personnel detonated suicide car bombs in an African Union peacekeeping base, killing 21 people. In October 2008, there were five apparently coordinated attacks in key urban centers of northern Somalia.
Somalia's lawlessness has spread security fears around region and raised concerns that al-Qaida is trying to gain a foothold in the Horn of Africa. The anarchy has also allowed piracy to flourish off the country's coast.
Of the three ministers killed in the blast, one was a woman — Qamar Aden Ali, the health minister. Ibrahim Hassan Adow, the minister for higher education, and Ahmed Abdullahi Wayel, the minister for education, also died. There are 37 ministers in Somalia's government, according to a Web site on the Somali government kept by the CIA.