By Henry Mukasa
THE commander of the African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia, Maj. Gen. Nathan Mugisha, has said the suicide bomb attack in Mogadishu will not deter efforts to pacify the country.
â€œIt is an act to intimidate us but we shall not be distracted in our mission,â€ the AMISOM commander told journalists at Speke Resort Munyonyo yesterday.
At least 19 civilians, including three Somali ministers, were killed when a bomb tore through a graduation ceremony at a hotel in the Somali capital yesterday morning.
Witnesses said the bomber entered the venue disguised as a veiled woman and then sat listening to the speeches before approaching the podium and blowing himself up. The police later showed journalists pictures of his mangled corpse.
Female health minister Qamar Aden Ali, education minister Ahmed Abdulahi Waayeel and higher education minister Ibrahim Hassan Addow died in the blast.
Sports minister Saleban Olad Roble was critically injured. A medical team of the Ugandan peacekeepers was by press time still trying to save his life.
More than 40 people were wounded, including the dean of Benadirâ€™s medical college, according to Ali Yasin Gedi, the vice-chairman of the Mogadishu-based Elman Peace and Human Rights Organisation.
A Reuters reporter at the Shamo Hotel said it was packed with graduates from Benadir University, their parents and officials.
â€œHuman flesh was everywhere,â€ he said.
â€œA lot of my friends were killed,â€ medical student Mohamed Abdulqadir said. â€œI was sitting next to a lecturer who also died. He had been speaking to the gathering just a few minutes before.â€
Dubai-based Al Arabiya TV said one of its cameramen, Hasan al-Zubair, had also been killed.
Suspicion for the blast immediately fell on the Al Shabaab group, which also struck at the AU base in Mogadishu with twin suicide car bombs in September, killing 17 peacekeepers, including the deputy force commander.
No peacekeepers were affected in yesterdayâ€™s sblast since it was outside their area of operation.
Mugisha called the attack a cowardly act by negative forces trying to derail the peace process and scare off potential troop-contributing countries.
Calling upon the Somali government to identify those behind the attack, Mugisha said such acts only strengthened their resolve to bring peace to Somalia.
â€œSuch inhumane and cowardly acts aimed at stalling the peace process will not deter the resolve and determination of the African Union to support the people of Somalia in their quest for peace and reconciliation,â€ a statement by AMISOM said.
The Ugandan force commander had just presented a paper at a confidence building workshop where he identified as challenges the continued attacks by militants using improvised explosive devices, inadequate troops, equipment and funds for the peacekeeping force.
Uganda and Burundi are the only nations that have contributed troops. Of the 8,000 soldiers needed to pacify Somalia, only 5,000 have so far been deployed.
The news of the attack dampened the mood in the conference room.
The AU deputy special representative to Somalia, Wafula Wamunyinyi, interrupted the mid-morning session to break the sad news.
Wafula said a bomb explosion went off inside Hotel Shamo during the graduation ceremony of medical students of Banadir University.
â€œIt was a serious offensive. It is one of those intended to intimidate and blackmail the government of Somalia, us and people working for peace and stability in Somalia,â€ he said.
A day earlier, Wafula had told the workshop that there were 1,200 foreign jihad fighters among Al Shabaab, half of whom are said to be Kenyans while some were reportedly recruited in Uganda.
He also confirmed claims by the Somali government that Al Shabaab received support from Al Qaeda. He said Al Qaeda had establishing training camps in Somalia while some of the groupâ€™s operational commanders belonged to the terrorist group.
â€œWith Al Qaeda training them, you know what to expect, suicide bombings and kidnaps,â€ he said on Wednesday.
Last month, Al Shabaab threatened to strike Kampala and Bujumbura.
Asked about the threat, Mugisha yesterday said it should be taken seriously. â€œWe should be on the lookout. It could happen any time.â€
Meanwhile, Kenyan security forces say they are on high alert on their frontier with Somalia after Al Shabaab gunmen seized several small towns on the Somali side of the border in recent weeks.
Kenyan anti-terrorism police sources said yesterday they had arrested nine members of another Somali rebel group, Hizbul Islam, and seized 20 AK-47 rifles at Kiunga, on the coast near Somalia, close to Lamu Island.
A senior anti-terrorism source told Reuters the men appeared to have fled advancing Shabaab forces and may have been bringing in guns to sell to local criminals to survive.
The anarchy has also spilled offshore, where armed Somali pirates have made millions of dollars by hijacking ships in the Indian Ocean.