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 theatre in an attack Islamist insurgents said was aimed at killing senior government figures.
Al-Shabaab rebels 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 also 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 continued to strike targets regularly in the heart of the coastal city using roadside bombs, mortars and suicide bombers.
Witnesses and the African Union said a female suicide bomber was behind the blast in the theatre. "So far six died and 10 were injured, mostly civilians. The Prime Minister was speaking inside the theatre when the blast took place, but he is safe, unhurt," Prosper Hakizimana, deputy spokesman for the AU's AMISOM force, told Reuters.
A Reuters reporter at the scene said corpses were strewn across the floor and some of the dead were still in their chairs. Ambulance workers were collecting the bodies.
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 theatre 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 theatre told Reuters 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 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-ridddled building for the first time in 20 years.
Highlighting the militants threat to the capital, armoured African Union vehicles and Somali government troops deployed along the road leading up to the theatre ahead of the opening ceremony, at which Somali President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed spoke of "peace, education and progress". 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 explosions and bombers would follow. 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 and the country's top sporting 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, told Reuters.
"Many great people have died today," she 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 he was shocked by the deaths.
"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.