MOGADISHU,(Reuters) – A suicide blast killed at least eight people near the Somali government seat of Baidoa on Thursday in an attack the administration blamed on rival Islamists backed by al Qaeda allies.
Cars were destroyed and charred bodies were strewn around a checkpoint about three miles (five km) outside the interim government’s sole outpost, witnesses said.
“The Islamic courts are behind this,” deputy defence minister Salad Ali Jelle told Reuters from Baidoa.
There were conflicting reports from the scene, but he said two car bombs had gone off, with two policemen among the dead. Witnesses reported at least four burned bodies in one of the suicide cars. “The same people who attempted to kill the president are behind this,” Jelle said, referring to a suicide bomb aimed at President Abdullahi Yusuf in Baidoa in September.
Yusuf blamed al Qaeda for that attack — Somalia’s first known suicide bombing — which killed five people including his brother outside parliament in the town 150 miles (240 km) from the capital Mogadishu.
An Islamist spokesman denied they carried out the attack. “We’re not at the Baidoa checkpoint,” Abdirahman Ali Mudey said.
The Islamists were born out of a coalition of sharia courts and deny allegations by their foes that they harbour fugitive foreign extremists.
Yusuf’s government is locked in a standoff with the Mogadishu-based religious group, which seized a swath of south Somalia in June. Diplomats fear Somalia is on the verge of all-out war, with Horn of Africa neighbours Ethiopia and Eritrea said to be backing the government and Islamists respectively.
Raha Sahal was driving to Baidoa with her two-year-old son. “As soon as we tried to move out of the customs checkpoint, the car behind us exploded,” she told Reuters by telephone, her voice cracking with emotion. “I don’t know what is wrong with my baby. He is bleeding from his ears.” She said she saw several badly burned bodies lying on the road between the wrecked vehicles behind, but was too distressed to say exactly how many. An old woman travelling in her car lost an eye in the blast, Sahal said.
The Somali government said two suspected attackers were arrested soon after Thursday’s blast.
Another witness, Fowzi Abdi Noor, said he saw four charred bodies in a car believed to be carrying one of the bombers. “The police told him to stop, and then the car exploded,” he said.
A Baidoa hospital nurse said four wounded were admitted.
Hours before the blast, Ethiopia’s parliament had voted to let the government take “all necessary” steps to rebuff any invasion by the Islamists amid reports Ethiopian troops on Somali soil died in a landmine blast late on Wednesday.
Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi urged lawmakers last week to back his plans to fight the Islamists, who have declared a jihad against Ethiopia, accusing it of sending troops into Somalia to prop up the fragile interim government. “Parliament hereby authorises the government to take all necessary and legal steps to stave off a declaration of holy war and invasion by the Union of Islamic Courts against the country,” Thursday’s resolution said.
In a Reuters interview last month, Meles said Ethiopia was already “technically” at war with the Islamists, whom he said were “spoiling for a fight”. On Thursday, he told parliament Ethiopia was just asserting its right to self-defence.