MOGADISHU, Somalia — Islamist militants detonated a truck bomb Tuesday in front of the Education Ministry in Somalia's capital, where students and their parents were registering for scholarships offered by the Turkish government.
The blast killed at least 70 people and wounded dozens more, an official with the city's ambulance service said.
It was the deadliest bomb attack yet in Somalia by al-Shabab, an al Qaeda-linked group that began its insurgency five years ago.
It also was the first significant attack in the capital since al-Shabab withdrew most of its gunmen in August amid an offensive by African Union forces, which are protecting the weak U.N.-backed government.
The truck blew up at a security checkpoint at the entrance to the Ministry of Education, police officer Ali Hussein said.
After the thunderous blast, blackened corpses were sprawled on the debris-strewn street amid burning vehicles. One woman used a blue plastic bucket to pour water on a smoldering body.
Abdiqadir Muhyadin, who works at the Information Ministry, lost a finger in the explosion. He said the vehicle initially appeared to have lost control and smashed through the security barrier before it exploded at the gate.
"Dozens of dead bodies and human flesh were scattered all over the area. A dead body fell over me," he said.
"The explosion has not only affected the targeted place, but even passer-by people and car passengers died there," said Ali Muse, the chief of Mogadishu's ambulance service. "The death toll may increase, and we are still carrying many dead bodies. It is the worst tragedy I have ever seen in the capital."
Ali Abdullahi, a nurse at Medina Hospital, said they were treating people with severed limbs and burns, and patients who were blinded.
"The casualties are mostly students and parents who were waiting for results of scholarships from the Ministry of Higher Education," the government said. "The attack shows that the danger from terrorists is not yet over, and that there are obviously still people who want to derail the advances that the Somali people have made toward peace."
Al-Shabab immediately claimed responsibility for the attack.
"Our Mujahideen fighters have entered a place where ministers and AMISOM foreigners stay," al-Shabab said in a brief post on a website, referring to the Ugandan and Burundian forces who make up the African Union Mission in Somalia peacekeeping mission.
AMISOM force commander, Maj. Gen. Fred Mugisha, said that his peacekeepers were working to the secure the scene, and that excavators had been sent to try to free people from the rubble.
Suicide bombings were unheard of in Somalia before 2007 but have become increasingly frequent. Al-Shabab claims allegiance to al Qaeda, which often uses car bombs and appears bent on gaining a greater foothold in the Horn of Africa.