Mogadishu was shaken by the worst suicide bombing in its history yesterday, signalling a new phase in the war for control of the Somali capital. At least 70 people died when a massive blast ripped through the Education Ministry killing students and their parents who had gathered to learn about scholarships to study abroad.
That death toll was expected to rise last night as more of the seriously wounded arrived at hospital.
The Islamic militant group al-Shabab, which surprised the world by abandoning its positions in the city in August, was quick to claim responsibility for the truck bomb and warned of worst to come.: "We are still in Mogadishu. How else could we conduct such an attack in the heart of the town?" said al-Shabab's spokesman, Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage.
"Somalis, we warn you: keep away from government buildings and the bases of their soldiers; more serious blasts are coming," he added.
The attack has raised fears that aid agencies will halt a tentative return to operations in the capital where hundreds of thousands of Somalis have fled to escape the famine.
Last night the streets around the Education Ministry were black from the blast and scattered with charred remains; the walls were flecked with shrapnel and wrecked vehicles were strewn about.
Ali Muse, head of the city's ambulance service, who has witnessed years of fighting in the city, described the bombing as "the worst tragedy I have ever seen".
Many of the victims were students who were waiting at the ministry and in the streets outside for news of scholarships and a way out of the war-torn city. The blast ripped through the surrounding streets where life had returned to comparative normality since al-Shabab's withdrawal. The group had warned that its retreat was a "shift in tactics" and that it would launch a fresh wave of attacks in Mogadishu.
"The explosion has not only affected the targeted place, but even passers-by, people and car passengers died there," said Mr Muse. "The death toll may increase and we are still carrying many dead bodies."
In a statement, the Somali government said: "The casualties are mostly students and parents who were waiting for results of scholarships from the Ministry of Higher Education."
The truck managed to reach a security post outside the ministry in the heavily guarded K-4 area of the city before detonating. Witnesses inside the compound described a deafening blast which shattered windows and made the "walls fall apart".
The deadliest single attack in the five-year insurgency by al-Shabab, yesterday's assault stirred memories of the December 2009 bombing at a university graduation ceremony. That attack, which decimated a generation of medical graduates, stoked public outrage and brought ordinary Somalis onto the streets to protest. Al-Shabab subsequently denied responsibility but yesterday a statement appeared on a website used by the group saying it had been carried out by their "Mujahideen fighters" targeting foreigners.
The UN's special representative to Somalia, Augustin Mahiga, warned that it was unlikely to be the last such attack. "Although the extremists have left the capital, it is very difficult to prevent these types of terrorist attacks," he said.
The capital is controlled by the Transitional Federal Government, which has been trying to reassert its authority since al-Shabab's departure two months ago. The unelected government, which has been derided as corrupt and ineffective, is guarded by an African Union force from Uganda and Burundi, AMISOM. The government's own security forces often go for months without being paid and have proved ineffective in operations against Islamic militants.
The suicide attack in the capital comes as al-Shabab is trying to make gains across south and central Somalia. The southern town of Dobley near the border with Kenya has witnessed heavy fighting in the last week as militants attempt to wrest control from forces loyal to the government and militias backed by Kenya.
Dobley is the main transit point for refugees from the famine seeking entrance to camps at Dadaab, in northern Kenya. Since famine was declared earlier this year, the population at Dadaab has risen to over 470,000.
From youth movement to al-Qa'ida bombers in five years
Al-Shabab has mushroomed in the space of five years from being the youth wing of a popular Islamist movement into an al-Qa'ida affiliate that launches suicide bombings both inside and outside Somalia.
It claimed responsibility for the twin suicide bomb attacks during last year's soccer World Cup that killed 76 people in Uganda – its first major atrocity beyond Somalia's borders.
But serious divisions have emerged in the group between nationalist fighters and foreign jihadists, many of whom trained in Afghanistan. Suicide bombings were unheard of in the Horn of Africa nation until 2007.
Since its withdrawal from the Somali capital Mogadishu, it controls the port of Kismayo and the sections of south and central Somalia worst-hit by the famine.
The targeted killing of key personnel and the loss of territory this year are thought to have hobbled al-Shabab financially.
The United States has also been targeting the group with unmanned drone attacks, replicating tactics used against the Taliban and al-Qa'ida in Afghanistan and Pakistan.