East African nations stepped up security last night after a double bombing targeting hundreds of people in Uganda watching the World Cup final raised fears that Somali militants planned to expand terrorist attacks across the region.
Al-Shabaab, a group which claims to have links with al-Qa'ida and is fighting the fragile, Western-backed Somali government, claimed responsibility for its first successful foreign strike. More than 70 people – from Uganda, Eritrea, Ethiopia, India, Ireland and the United States – were killed in the synchronised twin blasts.
Investigators identified the severed head of a Somali national at one of the bomb sites in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, suggesting it was a suicide attack, according to the Ugandan army.
For months al-Shabaab has been threatening to attack its East African neighbours that were threatening its hold over large parts of Somalia. Sunday night's attacks followed a failed attempt by the militant group to bomb hotels and other high-profile targets in Kenya last year. "We will carry out attacks against our enemy wherever they are," Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage, an al-Shabaab spokesman in Mogadishu, said. "No one will deter us from performing our Islamic duty."
The attacks on two crowded venues came 48 hours after the group threatened attacks on Uganda and Burundi for sending peacekeeping troops to try to bring an end to two decades of war and chaos in Somalia. Burundi yesterday stepped up its own security.
US President Barack Obama, condemning what he called deplorable and cowardly attacks, said Washington was ready to help Uganda in hunting down those responsible.
Analysts have warned of a growing threat from the group with ranks swollen by growing numbers of foreign jihadists from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Co-ordinated attacks have been a hallmark of al-Qa'ida and groups linked to Osama bin Laden's militant network.
The first bomb ripped through the Ethiopian Village restaurant, a popular Kampala nightspot heaving with local and foreign football fans during the latter stages of the World Cup final between Spain and the Netherlands. The blast killed at least 15 people and wounded dozens more.
"I was scared" said James, a motorcycle taxi driver who witnessed the blast. "People were rushing up and down the street looking for help. There was blood and so many dead bodies. Many people were guessing and talking about al-Shabaab."
Shortly afterwards, another blast hit a rugby club, popular with young professionals and students in Kampala, where hundreds of spectators had also gathered to watch the match on a large screen. Witnesses said spectators sitting in plastic chairs in the front rows of the partly open-air venue took the full force of the explosion.
"All of a sudden we heard this big explosion in front of the screen. The screaming started and everyone started to run," said Ivan Muhame, who was watching the game at the club.
Andinda Moses, 21, a Ugandan student, said there were two explosions. He thought the first was an electrical fault, then came a second bigger blast. "I just remember running and stepping over the bodies that had blood spilling from their bodies. It was so terrible. I was running, not knowing where I was going," he told the BBC. "After coming to my senses, I realised that I had blood stains all over my feet."
Many of the wounded from both bombings were taken to the Mulago Hospital, Uganda's largest. Outside, family members who had not heard from their relatives held each other, while others wailed and threw themselves to the ground. Inside the hospital, bodies covered in blood were rushed in and out of surgery.
In one corridor, a man lay on the floor bleeding from his head. It was impossible to know if he was dead or alive. A few feet away in a small storage locker, staff had created a makeshift morgue. Six bodies – all young – lay on the tiles; some had had their clothes blown off.
Before the official claim of responsibility, a senior commander for al-Shabaab, Sheikh Isse Yusuf told The Independent: "We are very glad with the loss of the Christian Uganda. These explosions were in reply to the massacre which their mercenaries are committing in Somalia. I am not going to say who was behind it, though it's obligatory to attack Uganda."
Yoweri Museveni, the Ugandan president, who visited the rugby club yesterday, said: "This shows you the criminality and terrorism that I have been talking about," he said. "If you want to fight, go and look for soldiers, don't bomb people watching football."
Analysts said that the blasts appear to mark a significant change in tactics by militants in Somalia, a country that has been mired in conflict and anarchy since warlords toppled the military dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.
Ethiopian troops invaded in 2006 to oust an Islamist movement from Mogadishu, sparking the Islamist insurgency which still rages and has left al-Shabaab in control of large areas of south and central Somalia.
"The targeting of an Ethiopian restaurant full of foreigners [is] three targets in one really – Ethiopia, Uganda and the United States," said Anna Murison of Exclusive Analysis.
The apparent shift by al-Shabaab outside of the country appears to be linked to the influence of what the International Crisis Group in a recent report called a "foreign jihadi cabal". The think-tank named one of its leaders as Fazul Abdullah Mohamed, who has been indicted by the US for his alleged role in the 1998 bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 240 people.
Last week, Kenya's foreign minister, Moses Wetangula, warned that the situation in Somalia was "very, very dire", with intelligence reports warning that Afghan, Pakistani and Middle Eastern fighters were all relocating to Somalia.Reuse content