Hundreds of Somalis marched in the streets of Mogadishu on Sunday to protest a deadly blast that killed 276 people in a busy shopping district in the country’s deadliest single bomb attack.
About 300 others were reported injured in the attack, Information Minister Abdirahman O. Osman said. It occurred when a truck carrying explosives detonated Saturday in a crowded street packed with cars and pedestrians, near government ministries and hotels.
Demonstrators on Sunday included many women in flowing gowns, protesting an attack that the Somali government blamed on the Al Qaeda-linked Shabab, a Somali extremist group that has carried out many similar attacks in the past. No one had claimed responsibility for the attack.
The death toll rose sharply Sunday as bodies were recovered, many of them burned in cars and nearby buildings.
Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo said the attack showed Somalia’s enemies cared nothing for human lives.
“Today’s horrific attack proves our enemy would stop [at] nothing to cause our people pain and suffering. Let’s unite against terror,” he tweeted. The president declared three days of mourning and called on citizens to donate blood as hospitals struggled to save critically injured civilians.
After the president visited Medina Hospital on Sunday morning to give blood and comfort victims, hundreds more Somalis flocked to hospitals to donate blood.
Relatives of missing people arrived at hospitals Sunday desperate for news of loved ones. Others wandered around the ruins of buildings hit by the blast.
Many of the dead had not been identified, with dozens burned beyond recognition.
“There’s nothing I can say. We have lost everything,” a weeping Zainab Sharif told the Associated Press. A mother of four who lost her husband, she sat outside a hospital where he was pronounced dead after hours of efforts by doctors to save him from an arterial injury. Among those killed were four Somali Red Crescent Society volunteers, according to the organization.
A freelance journalist was also killed, according to National Union of Somali Journalists Secretary General Mohamed Moalimuu.
The U.S. has stepped up drone attacks on the Shabab’s leaders in recent months but the organization has proven resilient, nimble and adaptable. It has lost territory and a string of leaders but still retains the capacity to mount regular attacks in the capital such as Saturday’s blast, often targeting hotels and restaurants, particularly those popular with government officials and journalists.
It also carries out daily assassinations and drive-by shootings, often targeting government employees.
The Shabab emerged in 2006 as an offshoot of the Islamic Courts Union and managed to gain control of much of the country, including Mogadishu. In 2011 African Union forces and Somali troops managed to drive the Shabab out of the capital, but the group still retains territory, particularly in the south of the country.
With Mogadishu hospitals overwhelmed, the Turkish government sent a plane to evacuate patients to Turkey for medical treatment.
The blast was detonated near the entrance of the Safari Hotel. One of the Shabab’s common tactics is to attack hotels, blasting through the main entrance with a vehicle bomb and following up with attacks by gunmen going from floor to floor, executing people.
Despite a blast wall, the hotel was shattered into piles of rubble.
Aamin Ambulance, a free community ambulance service, transported 250 injured people and 75 dead. “In our 10-year experience as the first responder in Mogadishu, we haven’t seen anything like this,” the ambulance service tweeted, posting photos of devastation from the scene.
The U.S. government condemned the “cowardly” attack.
“We extend our deepest condolences to the families of those who perished and wish a speedy recovery to individuals injured in the blasts. The United States lauds the heroic response of the Somali security forces and first responders and Somali citizens who rushed to the aid of their brothers and sisters,” the U.S. mission to Somalia, based in Kenya, said in a statement.
“Such cowardly attacks reinvigorate the commitment of the United States to assist our Somali and African Union partners to combat the scourge of terrorism to promote stability and prosperity for the Somali people and their regional neighbors,” the statement said.
The United Nations special representative on Somalia, Michael Keating, also expressed disgust over the attack.
“I am shocked and appalled by the number of lives that were lost in the bombings and the scale of destruction they caused,” he said. “Our deepest condolences go to the families and friends of the dead, and our thoughts are with the injured and all those affected.
“The perpetrators struck a densely populated neighborhood of Mogadishu. They have killed an unprecedented number of civilians. It is a revolting attack both in terms of its intent and impact. All Somalis must unite to condemn and repulse this kind of violent extremism,” Keating said.
3:40 p.m.: This article was updated with higher death toll, number of injured revised downward.
9:55 a.m.: This article was updated throughout with staff reporting.
4:55 a.m.: This article was updated with the death toll rising from 53 to 189.
This article was first published at 1:20 a.m.