A suicide bomber killed 19 people including three Somali government ministers and injured more than 60 at a graduation ceremony for medical students in Mogadishu Thursday, officials said.
The blast which ripped through a hotel is the most serious attack on the transitional federal government since the launch of an Al-Qaeda inspired Islamist insurgency that has brought new strife to the Horn of Africa nation.
"A suicide bomber detonated an explosion inside Hotel Shamo... during the graduation ceremony of medical students of the Banadir University resulting in the deaths of, so far, 19 civilians and injuries to several others," the African Union force in Somalia AMISOM said.
|US general Stanley McChrystal (centre), the top US commander in Afghanistan, shakes hands with Afghan parliament members in Kabul.|
More than 60 people were injured in the blast, some of them seriously.
Several ministers from the UN-backed government were attending the ceremony when the explosion went off. Most of the victims were students.
Somali President Sharif Sheik Ahmed accused the Al-Qaeda inspired insurgents of being behind the attack and called for urgent international help.
"We denounce in the strongest terms the blast which was carried out by the armed rebels fighting the government," Sharif told a press conference at his palace as the United Nations and European joined condemnation of the attack.
"We cannot tackle those violent elements alone and we call on the international community to rush to help us fight them," he said.
A hotel security official said the suicide bomber was probably among the students. The head of an NGO operating in Mogadishu said the bomber was dressed as a woman.
Higher Education Minister Ibrahim Hassan Addow and Health Minister Qamar Aden were killed on the spot and Education Minister Mohamed Abdullahi Waayel died shortly after the blast, a senior government official said.
Sports Minister Suleyman Olad Roble was among the injured.
Two journalists, one from Shabele Radio and another from Al Arabiya television, and a doctor were also killed, a source at the hotel said.
An AFP photographer sustained slight injuries.
"We were waiting outside the conference room when there was a huge explosion. I found myself on the ground in the middle of the smoke and screaming," he said.
"I went to get my camera, and that's when I saw the bodies of the three ministers."
Abdiweli Mohamed, whose brother was among the dead, said: "Today everybody in the university is crying, no one expected that such tragedy would follow the graduation ceremony."
A joint statement from the European Union, the regional InterGovernmental Authority on Development, the League of Arab States, the UN and the United States condemned the attack as "cowardly acts of terrorism".
"The horrific attack is another demonstration of the extremists' complete disregard for human life," the statement said.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon said separately: "This attack could only strengthen the determination of the Somali government and people and their partners to persist in their efforts to fight terrorism."
New EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said she was shocked.
"I want to assure the transitional federal government of Somalia of the EU's determination and commitment to support its efforts to fight extremism and reconstruct a peaceful Somalia," she said in a statement.
Somalia has had no effective government since President Mohamed Siad Barre was forced out of power in the early 1990s. Thousands have been killed in Mogadishu in recent years as Islamists battle for control of the capital.
Somali insurgents launched a fresh offensive against the transitional government on May 7 and clashes since then have left more than 250 dead while an estimated 120,000 people have fled the capital.
The transitional government only exists with the backing of the 5,000 African Union peacekeepers from Burundi and Uganda.
At least 60 peacekeepers have been killed since they were deployed in March 2007 to protect strategic sites in the seaside city.