- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 4, 2011

MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — Islamist militants detonated a truck bomb Tuesday in front of the education ministry in Somalia’s capital, killing at least 70 people and wounding dozens including students and parents who were awaiting the results of scholarships.

It was the biggest attack in Somalia’s capital since the al Qaeda-linked group known as al-Shabab withdrew most of its forces in August amid an offensive by African Union forces and a devastating famine.

The bomb blew up after coming to a halt at a security checkpoint, leaving blackened corpses on the debris-strewn street and setting other vehicles alight. Uniformed soldiers were seen dragging the wounded away.

Ali Abdullahi, a nurse at Medina hospital said they were treating people with horrific wounds, including amputated limbs, burns, and patients who have lost their sight in the attack.

“It is the most awful tragedy I have ever seen,” he said. “Imagine dozens are being brought here minute by minute. Most of the wounded people are unconscious and others have their faces blackened by smoke and heat.”

Ali Muse, the chief of Mogadishu’s ambulance service, told The Associated Press that at least 70 people had died and at least 42 others were wounded.

“The explosion has not only affected the targeted place, but even passer-by people and car passengers died there. The death toll may increase and we are still carrying many dead bodies” he said.

Al-Shabab immediately claimed responsibility for the attack on a website it uses.

“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 peacekeeping mission. But it was not clear whether the ministry building was their intended target.

The Somali government said that no senior government official was wounded in the bombing.

“The casualties are mostly students and parents who were waiting for results of scholarships from the Ministry of Higher Education,” the government said in a press release. “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 towards peace.”

Ali Hussein, a police officer in Mogadishu, said the vehicle blew up after pulling up to a checkpoint at the entrance to the Ministry of Education.

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 foothold in the Horn of Africa.

Al-Shabab includes militant veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts who have trained Somalis in tactics like suicide bombs and sniper fire, and until recently hosted the most wanted al Qaida operative in Africa. The fugitive Fazul Abdallah Mohammed, al Qaeda’s top operative in East Africa was killed by a Somali government soldier at road block in June.

Mohammed was mastermind behind the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Al-Shabab carried out a double suicide bombing in Uganda in July 2010 that killed 76 people watching the World Cup final on television. Americans of Somali heritage also have joined the group.

In 2009, a suicide bomber attacked a university graduation ceremony in Mogadishu, killing 24 people, including three government ministers, medical students and doctors.

Somalia has endured mostly anarchy for the last two decades. The nation is gripped by famine, which is mostly affecting southern parts of the country controlled by al-Shabab.