MOGADISHU, Somalia — An explosion Wednesday at a ceremony at Somalia’s national theater killed at least 10 people including two top sports officials in an attack by an Islamist group on a site that symbolized the city’s attempt to rise from two decades of war.
The explosion at the newly reopened theater happened as Somali Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali was standing at the podium to deliver a speech. The prime minister was unharmed, said Abdirahman Omar Osman, the government spokesman. The president of Somalia’s Olympic committee and the president of its soccer federation were killed, according to Shafici Mohyadin, the federation’s secretary.
The blast shattered a tentative peace that descended on Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, after fighters belonging to the Islamist group al-Shabab were pushed out last August by government and African Union troops.
The government said a female suicide bomber carried out the attack, but al-Shabab, using its official Twitter feed to claim responsbility for the attack, said explosives had been planted in the theater before the event.
Sports leagues have blossomed and seaside restaurants have been setting up shop, marking a long-awaited a revival of the seaside capital.
Wednesday’s ceremony — two weeks after the theater reopened — was held to mark the first anniversary of the start of a national TV station. The blast cut chairs in half, filled the room with smoke and splattered blood across the walls.
“It was a cowardly act and that will not deter the government from performing its national duties,” Osman said. “The prime minister will energize the government to eliminate the terrorists out of the country.”
Ali Muse, the head of Mogadishu’s ambulance service, said at least 10 people were killed and dozens wounded. He said the wounded included the country’s national planning minister.
“The blast happened as musicians were singing and spectators were clapping for them,” said Salah Jimale, who was in attendance at the theater but received only light scratches. “Huge smoke made the whole scene go dark. People screamed and soldiers suddenly started opening fire at the gate. Some wounded people escaped and ran away.”
Shoes and blood-splattered mobile phones lay on the floor. A man wounded in the head and chest tried to sit up but suddenly collapsed and died as a reporter looked on.
The International Olympic Committee issued a statement saying it was “shocked to hear of the terrorist attack that took the lives of the President of the Somali Olympic Committee Aden Yabarow Wiish and Somali Football Federation chief Said Mohamed Nur today in Mogadishu.”
“Both men were engaged in improving the lives of Somalian people through sport and we strongly condemn such an act of barbarism. Our thoughts are with the Somalian sporting community who lost two great leaders and with the families of the victims,” the IOC said.
The months of relative peace allowed sports leagues, restaurants and even a little night life to flourish. Despite those advances, al-Shabab has continued to carry out suicide and roadside bomb attacks, sometimes with devastating effect. Last October militants detonated a truck loaded with fuel drums at a government ministry gate, killing more than 100 people.
The revival of sports in Mogadishu is an important part of the city’s recent transformation. Women — who lived under harsh rules when al-Shabab held sway — can watch sports and even play. Al-Shabab defectors have put down their guns and are participating in sports leagues.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter said he knew both sports leaders who died Wednesday personally and they would be “sorely missed.”
African Football Confederation president Issa Hayatou sent condolences to the families of those killed “in this terrible blast.”
“It is another black day for African football. It’s a tragedy as Somali football lost a great leader … who was actively committed to football development despite very challenging conditions.”
After Wednesday’s blast, nervous soldiers outside the theater fired into the air to disperse shocked crowds gathered around the theater.
An old woman in tears ran toward a policeman after Wednesday’s blast, saying: “My son was in there.”
The policeman stopped her. She sat down and cried, but later ran into the theater, where she learned her son had died.
At the hospital, ambulance brought in the wounded, including a parliamentarian. Nurses led stumbling patients into surgical rooms.
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