MOGADISHU — Somalia’s new President, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, and the visiting Kenyan foreign minister on Wednesday escaped an apparent suicide bomb attack on a Mogadishu hotel where they were holding a news conference unscathed, witnesses said.
Somalia’s al-Shabaab rebels said they had carried out the attack, which killed at least eight people and came just two days after Mr Mohamud was elected in the first presidential vote in Somalia in decades.
Two explosions shook the Somali capital, underscoring the big security challenges facing the president who came to power in a process that was billed as an historic break with 20 years of violent anarchy.
“We were behind the Mogadishu hotel blasts. It was a well-planned Mujahideen operation,” Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, a spokesman for al-Shabaab’s military operation, told Reuters.
Jamila Mohammed, a TV journalist accompanying Kenya’s Foreign Affairs Minister Sam Ongeri, said she saw “pieces of meat flying all over the place” after the first blast. “Then I saw a second guy shooting as he stormed towards the hotel.”
Mr Mohamud’s election by Somali legislators on Monday was hailed by his supporters as a vote for change in the war-ridden Horn of Africa country that has lacked effective central government since 1991. Although he is a relatively new face in Somali politics, the former academic faces old problems: a stubborn Islamist insurgency, acrimonious clan politics, rampant corruption and maritime piracy.
“First and foremost we will address the security issue. Priority number one is security and priority number two and priority number three,” Mr Mohamud said moments after the blasts.
A Reuters witness said the body of what appeared to be a suicide bomber could be seen outside the hotel. A severed head lay in a large crater in the road.
Al-Shabaab — which is linked to al-Qaeda — said the explosions had killed four members of the government’s security forces.
A Somali ambulance service worker said they had picked up the bodies of five government soldiers and two civilians. “I could also see three dead African Union soldiers,” the ambulance worker, who declined to be named, said.
The attack targeted the Jazeera Palace hotel which is located near Mogadishu’s heavily fortified international airport. The airport compound is a major base for African Union peacekeepers and the surrounding area is considered one of the safest parts of the coastal city.
On Tuesday, al-Shabaab branded Mr Mohamud a “traitor” and vowed to continue its jihad against a government it says serves only western interests.
Kenya sent troops into Somalia last November to help crush the Islamist insurgency. “The bomb blasts will change nothing at all. We are there for the course and until that course has been achieved,” Bogita Ongeri, a Kenya Defence Force spokesman, said.