Hopes of a recovery in Mogadishu after decades of war were today set back by a bomb attack on the national theatre that killed two of Somalia’s top sports officials.
The bombing, which was later claimed by Islamic militants al-Shabaab, ripped through the first birthday party for the restored state broadcaster, leaving the president of Somalia´s national football federation and its Olympic chief dead and killing at least eight others.
The blast marked the end of a period of comparative peace in the Somali capital that has followed the militants' withdrawal from the city in August last year. Al-Shabaab has insisted its retreat from Mogadishu is tactical and has vowed to continue a bombing campaign after being pushed out by African Union troops during last year’s famine.
The explosion at the theatre, the reopening of which a fortnight ago was seen as a symbol of the city’s re-emergence, is the latest in a long line of attacks on cultural, sporting and educational targets.
Two-and-a-half years ago a suicide bomber killed 22 people at a ceremony honouring the country’s first medical school graduates since Somalia collapsed into civil war in 1991. The slaughter of badly needed young doctors prompted the first public protests against al-Shabaab.
The group’s biggest attack beyond the Somali borders came on the night of the soccer World Cup final as twin bomb blasts killed 79 people in the Ugandan capital, Kampala. The militants said the attack was revenge for the presence of Ugandans in the AU force that has protected the internationally recognised Somali government since it returned from exile.
The reopening of the national theatre with a concert last month was one of a number of tentative signs of normal life in a shattered coastal city that has been contested by warlords, foreign troops and dozens of militia groups for more than two decades. Mogadishu´s fish market has come back to life in recent months and the trickle of images from the city now includes football on the beach and pasta-eating competitions, as well as street battles and bomb sites.
But today the bodies of several of the key figures in the recent revival were carried out beneath the theatre’s scarred façade, already marked by the stray shells of previous battles. Inside witnesses said that the blast had splattered blood on the walls and sliced chairs in half. Among the dead was Said Mohamed Nur whom friends have credited with reviving football in Somalia after a long period in which the national stadium was used as a barracks for the militants in their battle for the city with the UN-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG).
The football federation has recruited former fighters and begun to restore pitches and restart leagues. Earlier this week it reached out to other regions in the deeply divided country in an effort to restart a national league. The International Olympic Committee condemned the attack and paid tribute to the football chief and his Olympic counterpart, Aden Yabarow Wiish: “Both men were engaged in improving the lives of Somali people through sport and we strongly condemn such an act of barbarism.”
Authorities initially said the attack had been carried out by a female suicide bomber but a spokesman for al-Shabaab said the bomb had been planted in advance of the event.
While Mogadishu has enjoyed a period of relative calm, war rages on across central and southern Somalia. Neighbours Ethiopia and Kenya have invaded different parts of the country, ostensibly to battle al-Shabaab, which has been pushed back into a shrinking area around the port city of Kismayo. In the continuing chaos, pirate and kidnap gangs have flourished by hijacking ships and snatching hostages from across the border in Kenya. A major summit in London in February agreed fresh military and development aid but critics remain unconvinced by the TFG which has been riven by corruption and power struggles and has made little headway in improving people’s lives on the ground.