Mogadishu: At least ten people were killed Monday in a suicide car bomb in the Somali capital claimed by Islamist insurgents, in one of the bloodiest attacks in war-ravaged Mogadishu in recent months.
The attack comes a day after the Shebab insurgents retook the key town of Hudur in Somalia’s southwest after Ethiopian troops who had held it since 2011 left, sparking concerns of a wider withdrawal that would leave peacekeeping forces overstretched.
The blast targeted and injured a top intelligence official, security sources said.
“Many have been killed, some of them were in a minibus that was hit by the blast,” said Hassan Salad, who witnessed the explosion near the capital’s National Theatre.
“This is a disaster, there is smoke and dead bodies thrown all around.”
Somali Prime Minister Abdi Farah Shirdon said that 10 people were killed and 15 wounded “when a car bomber drove into a passenger bus”.
Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab fighters boasted of the killings, saying they had targeted and wounded Mogadishu’s intelligence chief Khalif Ereg.
“Attacks against elements like him will continue until they are eliminated from the holy land of Somalia,” Shebab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage told AFP.
The blast and retaking of Hudur mark a major victory for the Shebab, who have been on the back foot in Somalia for several months, losing a string of towns to a 17,000-strong African Union (AU) peacekeeping force.
Hudur had been occupied by Ethiopian troops since late 2011, when they crossed into Somalia to attack Shebab bases, shortly after Kenyan forces invaded Somalia from the far south.
While Kenyan troops have since joined the AU force, Ethiopian forces have remained separate, although they still collaborate with the mission.
The Ethiopian troops’ exit from Hudur has sparked concern that they are planning a much wider withdrawal from the region that would play in the hands of the Shebab.
Ethiopian troops were also reported to be packing kit in Baidoa, another key city, on Monday.
However security sources said they were unlikely to be able to stage a rapid pullout of the city given the large amount of heavy equipment and weaponry based there.
“The behaviour of the Ethiopians is ambiguous,” another security source said, asking whether they were “really leaving or pretending?”
Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said last year that his troops would remain in Somalia until AU troops were ready to replace the soldiers.
Some 2,000 civilians — many women and children — were reported to have fled Hudur, moving in a slow moving convoy on foot or by donkey cart towards the Ethiopian border.
They could take three days to reach the Ethiopian border, exposed to possible ambush along the way, warned Jean-Se Munie, head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs for Somalia’s south-central region.
And in Hudur, residents said Monday that the Shebab had arrested several civilians believed to have supported Ethiopian or government troops.
“The town is quiet but people are frightened for their lives… More than 20 people have been arrested,” a resident said, asking not to be named over security concerns.
Further clashes between the Shebab and Somali troops in the country’s southwest have seen civilians fleeing amid fears of possible further advances by the Islamists.