NAIROBI—A deadly weekend bombing by al-Shabaab militants at a popular restaurant in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu, killing 20 people, has once again exposed the challenges facing a fledgling government whose stability is seen as crucial to the security in East Africa.
The Saturday assault, which targeted a lunchtime crowd, included car bombing and a suicide attacker on foot, officials said.
The assailant first parked his explosive-laden car outside of the restaurant, then moved off to a safe distance and remotely detonated the bomb, said Said Isak, a spokesman for the Somali police commissioner’s office. As people rushed in to help the wounded, the attacker returned and set off the explosives strapped to his body.
He died along with 19 others—one police officer and 18 civilians, Mr. Isak said. Bodies of both women and men were lying on the bloody pavement around the restaurant Saturday as police secured the area.
“He came back to finish off the wounded and the rescuers,” Mr. Isak said. More than 30 people were wounded in the strike and at least four cars parked nearby were destroyed in the conflagration, he said.
The Somali militant group al-Shabaab, which has struck Mogadishu multiple times in recent months, claimed responsibility for the attack.
Somalia’s recently elected government has sought to solidify its control over the capital and extend its reach into the rest of the country. But militants have resisted those efforts, and continue to show how vulnerable the state remains by hitting civilian targets.
“Such cruel and cowardly acts of terrorism serve to remind us that the people of Somalia desperately need peace,” Nicholas Kay, the United Nations special representative for Somalia, said in a statement after the bombing.
The repeated strikes have made it difficult for the one-year-old government to assert authority even inside Mogadishu—and constrained its push to outlying areas. And while international allies have said they remain committed to supporting the Somali government and security forces, continuing violence has already seen some scaling back of operations inside the country.
The security threat inside Somalia looms over the region as well.
Somali refugees from the long-running conflict have flooded into Kenya and Ethiopia, as have al-Shabaab militants who are suspected of plotting attacks within the safety of the refugee camps. The continuing risk of instability on the border has made the fight key to the stability of both Kenya and Ethiopia—East Africa’s economic linchpins.
The latest attack was the deadliest in Somalia since June, when al-Shabaab militants killed 22 people in an assault on the main U.N. compound in Mogadishu.
The militants also killed at least 20 people when they stormed the Supreme Court building in April, opening fire as they entered the building. On the same day, a suicide car bomber struck a vehicle carrying Turkish citizens, killing two passengers.
And Saturday’s strike at the restaurant came less than a week after a roadside bomb exploded near the president’s convoy in what appeared to be an assassination attempt.
“It’s a pretty steady rhythm, sadly,” said Ben Parker, a spokesman for the U.N. mission in Somalia. “There’s grenades, there’s remote-controlled land mines, there’s assassinations.”
Such attacks have prompted some organizations to withdraw from Somalia, most recently Doctors Without Borders, which cited security concerns for its staff.
The blast Saturday comes two weeks before a conference in Brussels between international donors and the Somali government about the future of the volatile state. The conference will look at issues of aid and how to improve government transparency.
The Village restaurant in Mogadishu—where the attack Saturday ripped apart the metal roof of the open-air venue—is an eatery popular with local journalists, intellectuals and government employees. Militants have twice targeted the restaurant.
Ahmed Adan, a spokesman for Prime Minister Abdi Farah Shirdon, said there was no indication any specific person was targeted in the attack.