By Lutfi Sheriff Mohammed and Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times –
MOGADISHU, Somalia — It was supposed to be a symbol of hope: The newly reopened National Theater was the most potent sign of the peaceful change that has swept Mogadishu since al-Shabab militants fled the Somali capital in August.
It turned into a scene of bloody chaos Wednesday when a bombing killed 10 people. The attack was an apparently attempt to assassinate Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohammed Ali, who was attending a ceremony with many officials of his Western-backed Transitional Federal Government, or TFG.
Two top national sports officials, Somali Olympic Committee President Aden Yabarow Wiish and Somali Football Federation chief Said Mohamed Nur, were killed in the blast.
Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the attack, boasting in a Tweet that the “large explosion brings the show to an end leaving scores of MP’s (sic) TFG officials and intelligence personnel dead.” Both sides in the conflict tend to exaggerate casualties caused by their attacks.
Ali told a news conference that a female suicide bomber triggered the blast. A witness gave a similar account to the Los Angeles Times.
“The explosion blasted as I was speaking at the microphone,” the prime minister told reporters. He said the minister for planning, Abdullahi Godah Barre, sustained minor injuries when he was hit in the neck by shrapnel.
But al-Shabab challenged that account, claiming to have planted the explosives beforehand.
“This operation wasn’t carried out by a female as they allege, but everything was carefully planned and orchestrated by specially trained unit,” the group claimed in another tweet.
Mogadishu has gradually come back to life since al-Shabab’s withdrawal, with cafes, restaurants and the fish market opening and Turkish Airlines launching flights to the city. But the growing sense of peace is frayed by regular, devastating bomb attacks from the al-Qaida-linked militants.
Mogadishu, ruled for decades by rival clan warlords, has seen the longest stretch of relative peace since the country’s collapse into civil war and chaos in 1991 after the ousting of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre.
The theater explosion came as the prime minister was addressing a ceremony marking the first anniversary of Somalia’s television station.
Sahro Ahmed, a witness, told the Times he noticed a young, anxious woman in dark clothing sitting in the theater behind him.
“Everyone was happy, but she looked so worried as she was sitting behind me,” he said. He saw her move to a seat at the front of the theater. “A few minutes later a big explosion went off in the area where she was, and her body was scattered in pieces.”
Another witness, Amina Salah, said some people were dazed and in shock after the blast, while others helped police rescue the wounded and collect bodies.
The theater, a looming concrete edifice, closed down when Somalia slid into civil war and only reopened last month.
The government has signed a road map leading to democratic elections, which are supposed to be held this year, despite the continued bomb attacks. Al-Shabab still retains control over much of southern Somalia, though troops from the African Union, Kenya and Ethiopia are trying to crush the rebellion.