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Suicide bombing at graduation ceremony in Somalia kills 3 Cabinet ministers

The attack is a devastating blow to a transitional government as well as an indication of the reach of Islamist militants and Al Qaeda operatives.

December 04, 2009|By Lutfi Sheriff Mohammed and Jeffrey Fleishman

Reporting from Cairo and Mogadishu, Somalia — In a stunning attack on Somalia's shaky government, a suicide bombing Thursday at a graduation ceremony in Mogadishu killed three Cabinet ministers and least 12 others, government officials said.

The bomber sneaked in amid hundreds of guests and graduating medical students at the Shamo Hotel in the south of the capital. Government forces control only a sliver of Mogadishu, and the attack was another indication of the reach of Islamist militants and Al Qaeda operatives.

The carnage was a devastating blow to a transitional government, backed by U.S. arms shipments and African Union troops, that is fighting a civil war against an Islamic insurgency. The international community is concerned that Somalia, which hasn't had a stable government since 1991, is descending into chaos that is infecting a region also plagued by pirates and gunrunners.

"This is a national tragedy for the Somali people," said Abdulkadir Mohamed Osman, director of information for the Somali presidency. "The blast rocked inside the hotel, killing three ministers and wounding another one."

The top-ranking officials killed in the explosion were Health Minister Qamar Aden Ali, Higher Education Minister Ibrahim Hassan Adow and Education Minister Ahmed Abdullahi Wayeel. News reports put the number of dead, including students, doctors and journalists, at 10 to 15.

No group claimed immediate responsibility for the bloodshed, but it appeared to be the work of Shabab, an Islamic militant organization the U.S. alleges has close ties to Al Qaeda. In June, the group killed the government security minister and at least 24 others at a hotel in the town of Baladwayne. In September, Islamic militants attacked a base for African Union peacekeepers, killing a top commander.

Thursday's attack raised further doubts over whether the moderate Islamic government could achieve even a degree of stability. It also increased worries that militants have sympathizers within security agencies.

The explosion ripped through a hall decorated with balloons as hundreds of students, family members, doctors and lecturers gathered for the graduation ceremony for Banadir University. It was a day of pride in a nation that has known little, but it went horribly wrong as new suits were drenched in blood and victims were carried through the smoke and laid in the sunlight.

"The situation has dramatically changed from happiness to heartbreak," said Muno Mohamed, a second-year student who attended the ceremony. "I am really discouraged for my colleagues. They have been studying in such a horrific environment and today they passed away without benefiting from their education. May God give them his paradise."

Dr. Ali Yusuf, director of Median Hospital, said: "Forty people with shrapnel wounds, including students and medical doctors, have been hospitalized today. Six people died inside the hospital."

President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed told reporters that the "idea behind this blast came from a foreign ideology, not from Somali people."

"This blast doesn't deter our operations and we will continue to stabilize our country, but I call on the international community to support our administration in order to overcome all these obstacles."

The African Union, which has more than 5,000 peacekeepers in Somalia, condemned the attack: "Such an inhumane and cowardly act aimed at stalling the peace process will not deter the resolve and determination of the African Union to support the people of Somalia in their quest for peace and reconciliation."

Shabab militants control much of south and central Somalia, and their ranks have been joined by thousands of extremists from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and other nations, according to the government. The insurgency, a tangle of crime, religious fanaticism and tribal brutality, has killed about 19,000 people since 2007.

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

Mohammed is a special correspondent.

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