The internal security minister in Somalia's fragile, internationally-backed government has been killed in a suicide attack. The blast, which took place in the town of Beledweyne near the Ethiopian border, killed at least 20 people.
Omar Hashi Aden had been a key figure in the Somali government's efforts to counter the Islamist insurgency that is seeking to take control of the country. He had arrived in Beledweyne earlier this month to lead operations against Islamist insurgents in the area.
Somalia's president, Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed confirmed that Aden, as well as a former Somali ambassador to Ethiopia, Abdul Karim Farah Laqanyo, were killed in the Beledweyne attack.
He said he was sending his condolences to the families of the victims. He called the attack a terrorist act and blamed al-Qaida.
According to witnesses, a small car exploded after driving up to the Medina Hotel in Beledweyne. In addition to Somalia's former ambassador to Ethiopia, other officials may also have been among the victims of the blast.
A spokesman for the al-Shabab militia, Ali Muhamud Rage, claimed responsibility for the attack at the hotel.
Rage said the man they called the security minister brought Christians to the country and destroyed our land and people. He said one of our fighters carried out a martyrdom operation and killed the security minister and Abdukarim Laqanyo while they were meeting at a hotel in Beledweyn.
Suicide attacks have been relatively uncommon in the Islamist insurgency that began in early 2007. But that may be changing. A suicide attack on a government base last month killed six, and at the time al-Shabab vowed to carry out more attacks.
The U.S. State Department calls al-Shabab a terrorist organization with ties to al Qaida. In a statement, the United States condemned the suicide attack, praising Aden's efforts to rebuild Somalia's security forces, and calling for continued support to the transitional government.
The United States has long worried that Islamist terrorists, including members of Al-Qaida, could use Somalia as a haven. The Somali government has said foreign fighters have been involved in recent insurgent attacks, and the United Nation's representative recently said as many as 300 foreign fighters could be in the country.
Somalia has seen some of the most intense fighting in years since insurgents launched a new offensive in early May. Much of the fighting has been in the capital, Mogadishu. More than 250 people have been killed and the UN says more than 122,000 have been displaced.
The fighting in the last 48 hours has been particularly fierce, with dozens reported killed in clashes between Islamist insurgents from the Shabab and Hizbul Islam militias and government forces and their allies.
The insurgents say that President Ahmed's government is not committed to establishing an Islamist state, despite its efforts to introduce Islamic law in the country. The insurgents also say the government is too close to Ethiopia and the United States, and wants African Union peacekeepers based in the capital to leave the country.
Somalia has been without a proper central government since 1991. Nearly half of the country's population requires food aid.