NAIROBI, Kenya – A large explosion killed at least eight people and injured nine others in Mogadishu on Wednesday, according to the chief of an ambulance service, the latest attack to hit the Somali capital as the country grapples with internal political struggles and a growing humanitarian crisis.
The car explosion happened just before noon on a road leading to Mogadishu International Airport, according to Abdulkadir Adan, the founder of the ambulance service, Aamin Ambulance, Mogadishu’s only free ambulance service. The road also serves a major police academy and a compound where United Nations and foreign government personnel and officials live.
The bombing, part of a string of attacks blamed on the Qaeda-linked Al Shabab extremist group that have gripped Somalia in recent months, comes as the country’s leaders struggle to resolve a crisis policy that has diverted the government from the deteriorating security situation.
Somali Memo, an Al Shabab-affiliated news site, said militants claimed responsibility for the attack Wednesday. He said the group had targeted “a convoy of vehicles carrying white security guards”.
Government spokesman Mohamed Ibrahim Moalimuu condemned what he called a suicide bombing, calling it a “coward”.
“Such acts of terrorism will not derail the ongoing peace and development in the country,” he wrote on Twitter. “We must unite in the fight against terrorism.”
Details on how the attack was carried out were not immediately available. The Somali police spokesman did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Photos and videos posted on social media showed a plume of smoke rising from a mutilated vehicle at the site of the attack as well as damaged buildings. Witnesses said the explosion could be heard in many areas of the city.
The blast hit the country as it navigates a tense election period that has seen growing infighting among its political leaders.
In December, President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed suspended Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble on corruption charges. Mr Roble refused to resign, saying Mr Mohamed – whose official mandate expired in February but who remained in office – is trying to “overthrow the government, the Constitution and the laws of the country”.
The political struggle has threatened to tip the country into violent conflict, like the clashes that erupted in April, and reverse the modicum of peace and stability that Somalia has achieved in recent years.
After weeks of wrangling, Mr. Mohamed on Monday supported a plan by the prime minister and other regional leaders to conclude parliamentary elections by February 25 – more than a year after they were originally planned. On Tuesday, State Department spokesman Ned Price called on Somali officials to complete the long-delayed elections and address the divisions that have stymied the process.
“The United States stands ready to use relevant tools, potentially including visa restrictions, to respond to further delays or actions that compromise the integrity of the process,” Mr Price said.
On Thursday, supporters of Mr Roble are expected to demonstrate in the capital to show their support for the Prime Minister, a move that could increase tensions.
As disagreements over the elections persist, Al Shabab has stepped up its attacks, particularly in the capital. In the past two months, the group has detonated a car bomb, assassinated government officials and attacked election centers – efforts that analysts say are aimed at undermining the electoral process.
The militant group has also taken advantage of infighting between Somali political forces by attacking and capturing towns where they had not been active for over a decade.
The country’s instability has also been compounded by political divisions in the semi-autonomous northeastern state of Puntland, where clashes between government forces – including an elite US-trained unit – have diverted attention from the fight against Al Shabab.
The security situation in Somalia is deteriorating and parts of the country are facing their driest season in about four decades. An estimated 3.8 million people are acutely food insecure, according to the UN, with nearly three million internally displaced people.
“As the current election cycle and tensions drag on, the attention of the political elite will be more inward looking, while other priorities will lag behind,” said analyst Omar S. Mahmood. Senior Somalia Officer at the International Crisis Group. “It unfortunately creates more space for Al Shabab to operate.”
Hussein Mohammad contributed reporting from Mogadishu, Somalia.