A suicide bomber dressed as a woman attacked a Somali university graduation ceremony today killing up to 19 people, including three cabinet ministers.
The attack in Mogadishu was a severe blow to a country long battered by war and underlined the government’s tenuous hold on even a small area of the capital.
“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 inside the Shamo Hotel.
The attackers 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 had passed since anyone earned a medical degree in Somalia.
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,” Mr Gelle said. “We even have his picture.”
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.
He said: “The hopes of many parents who eagerly awaited for their sons’ graduation were recklessly dashed by anti-peace elements. Today should have been a day of celebration – not a mourning.”
Several hundred people had gathered inside a decorated ballroom in the 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.
The European Union and the African Union condemned the attack.
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 UN 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 centres of northern Somalia.