A suicide bomber disguised as a veiled woman blew himself up in the middle of a crowded hotel in Mogadishu yesterday, killing at least 19 people including three government ministers.
The bomber crept into a graduation ceremony of university medical students in the capital of Somalia, killing several young doctors that will be badly needed in the war-torn country.
"What happened is a national disaster," Dahir Mohamud Gelle, the Somali information minister, said, confirming that his three Cabinet colleagues from the education, higher education and health departments had all been killed in the blast at the Shamo Hotel. A fourth minister was seriously wounded.
Witnesses said the man, dressed in a veil and women's shoes, entered the hotel's crowded conference hall where 700 people had gathered for the graduation. A huge blast then ripped through the hall and the hotel filled with smoke.
The graduating class came from Benadir University, which was set up seven years ago to train doctors to replace those who had fled overseas or been killed in the civil war. Yesterday's bomb victims were only the second class to have completed their training.
"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."
While no group has claimed responsibility for the attack, the transitional government was last night blaming the Islamic extremist militia al-Shabaab.
A joint statement from the African Union, the EU, the League of Arab States, the UN and the US condemned the bombing: "This horrific attack is another demonstration of the extremists' complete disregard for human life. The fact that this bombing targeted a ceremony for graduating medical students – the future doctors of Somalia – is particularly egregious."
The strike at a hotel often used by foreign visitors and thought to be safely inside the section of the capital still controlled by the government has underlined the strength of al-Shabaab, which has vowed to topple the UN-backed administration of Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed. The government only controls a small section of Mogadishu, while the militia controls swathes of south and central Somalia.
The more moderate Islamic leader, Sheik Sharif, was put in place with international backing this year, in the hope of uniting warring factions and weakening the mounting threat of al-Shabaab. The militia was originally the youth wing of Sheik Sharif's own shortlived Islamic Courts Union, which succeeded in establishing itself in power in 2006. The ICU harnessed popular support to defeat the warlords who had been feuding with each other since falling out in the wake of their defeat of the socialist dictator Siad Barre in 1991.
Sheik Sharif has been condemned as a foreign puppet by al-Shabaab, which has pledged its loyalty to al-Qa'ida.
Eyewitness: 'From celebration to horror'
"There was blood splattered everywhere. I was really in disbelief, in shock. I have never seen so many people killed at the same time... I went outside and the street was filled with people trying to rescue their friends and family. No one knew who had been killed and who had survived. I could see my colleagues – journalists I had been talking to just before – lying on the ground covered in blood. One colleague was right in front of me on his stomach. I couldn't tell whether he was alive or dead. Another colleague was being carried out as local people began to arrive and help out. It was a terrible few minutes. It's still impossible to understand how everything turned from colourful celebration to horror so quickly."
From a personal account by the BBC journalist Mohammed Olad HassanReuse content