MOGADISHU: At least six people, including two of Somalia's top sports officials, were killed when a female suicide bomber struck a ceremony at Mogadishu's national theater in an attack Islamist rebels said was aimed at assassinating government ministers.
Al Shabaab insurgents claimed responsibility for the blast on Wednesday that killed the heads of Somalia's soccer federation and Olympic committee in yet another stark reminder of the fragile security in the capital Mogadishu.
The bombing was an apparent attempt to kill the prime minister as he spoke at an event to mark the first anniversary of the country's new satellite television channel.
While the al Qaeda-allied militants pulled their fighters out of the capital last August, they have struck targets regularly in the heart of the coastal city using roadside bombs, mortars and suicide bombers.
A soldier guarding the newly opened theater said the bomber had been stopped but the premier's security team had insisted she be allowed in because she was carrying police ID.
"The suicide bomber was a young, slim lady with plaited hair. She wore a veil and carried a police identity card," Mohamed Ali, the soldier told Reuters.
"She sat under the tree in front of the theater for a while. She stood and went towards the theater when she heard the voice of the PM. We were suspicious and shouted 'stop'. She wanted to target the PM.
"We stopped her. But the PM's guards inside shouted 'let her come in' because she had a police identity card in her hand. And all of a sudden we heard the explosion."
The African Union, which also identified the bomber as a woman, said six people were killed and 12 wounded.
"The prime minister was speaking inside the theater when the blast took place, but he is safe, unhurt," Gilbert Nitunga, deputy spokesman for the AU's AMISOM force, said.
Corpses were strewn across the floor of the theater and some of the dead were still in their seats, a Reuters reporter at the scene said. Ambulance workers collected the bodies and sirens wailed as the wounded were rushed to hospitals.
Al Shabaab said it had targeted government officials and lawmakers with explosives planted ahead of the event, and denied that it had used a suicide bomber.
"We were behind the theater blast. We targeted the infidel ministers and legislators, and they were the casualties of today," Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, the spokesman for al Shabaab's military operations, told Reuters.
One witness at the theater said he could see four corpses, including the two sports officials. A doctor at the Madina hospital said two ministers and a member of parliament were among those hurt.
The attack comes ahead of a planned political transition in Somalia, with the Western-backed government's term due to end in August, when elections have been scheduled in what has been described in the West as the world's worst failed state.
The National Theatre reopened on March 19 for the first time in two decades, raising hopes the country had turned a corner after being plagued by violence since the dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was ousted in 1991. Somali musicians staged a concert in the bullet-riddled building for the first time in 20 years.
Highlighting the militants' threat to the capital, armored African Union vehicles and Somali government troops deployed along the road leading up to the theater ahead of the opening ceremony, at which Somali President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed spoke of "peace, education and progress".
ART DEEMED UNISLAMIC
Many Somali artists, actors and singers have fled the violence over the last two decades, especially as al Shabaab cracked down on any forms of art it deemed unIslamic.
Al Shabaab said on March 14, after one its suicide bombers struck at the presidential palace, that more bombings would follow.
Financed by foreign donations and taxes it imposes on the areas it controls, al Shabaab has threatened to carry on its war against the government and the AU despite having been evicted from much of Mogadishu and losing territory to Kenyan and Ethiopian troops in the south.
The presidential palace has come under mortar attack several times in the last two weeks. The bombs have mostly fallen short, killing civilians in nearby camps for those displaced by the violence.
While the prime minister escaped unhurt, at least one minister and a member of parliament were hurt. The country's top sports officials bore the brunt of the attack.
"The government sent us four invitation cards. And of the four officials who went, two are dead and the other two injured. It is a black day," Kadija Dahir Aden, acting president of Somali athletics, said.
She said the Somali Olympic Committee chairman, Aden Yabarow Wiish, and the president of the Somali Football Federation, Said Mohamed Nur, had died, while the deputy at the Olympic committee and the chairman for Somali boxing were both injured.
Sepp Blatter, president of soccer's governing body FIFA, said in a statement that he was shocked by the killings.
"I knew both men personally and can only say good things about their endless efforts to promote sport and football in their country. They will be sorely missed," he said.
The International Olympic Committee also expressed its shock, saying: "Both men were engaged in improving the lives of Somalian people through sport and we strongly condemn such an act of barbarism."
In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney slammed it as an "outrageous" attack that he said showed al Shabaab was "standing in the way of Somalia's path to peace and stability."
"We remain committed to the people of Somalia and assisting them in countering al Shabaab's violence and in returning peace to their country," Carney said in a statement.
Somalia hopes to send two athletes to the London 2012 Olympics. Five athletes have been training in a dilapidated Mogadishu stadium and often run through the city's rutted streets patrolled by Africa Union armored vehicles.
Prime Minister David Cameron said Britain would welcome the Somali athletes to the London Olympics "and stand with them in memory of their very sad loss".