A deadly hotel bombing in Mogadishu has killed at least 19 people, including three Somali Cabinet ministers. Some reports say the death toll could be higher. The blast targeted a university graduation ceremony being attended by a number of government officials.
Mogadishu's Shamu Hotel was hosting a graduation ceremony for Banadir University. Eyewitnesses tell VOA a suicide bomber gained access to the venue dressed as a woman, donning a full abaya and a veil.
The attacker was wearing an explosive strapped to his torso, but was not patted down by security.
Former Islamic Courts Union members at the scene identified the bomber, whose head and face had been completely shaven, as a member of al-Shabab, the ultra-conservative militant Islamist group believed to have links to al-Qaida.
Somali Health Minister Qamar Aden Ali, Education Minister Ahmed Abdullahi Waayeel, and Higher Education Minister Ibrahim Hassan Adow were killed in the attack on Hotel Shamo.
Adow served as the foreign secretary of the insurgent Islamic Courts Union when it took power in 2006. The Somali minister for sports is also reported to be hospitalized and in critical condition.
Mohamed Mohamoud, an attending graduate of the ceremony, says he personally saw the remains of the health minister on the ground, as well as the corpses of other government officials.
Two journalists, a reporter for Radio Shabelle and a cameraman with al-Arabia TV, were also found dead from the explosion. The National Union of Somali Journalists has issued a statement condemning the attack and expressing outrage at the loss of their colleagues.
Somalia is one of the world's most dangerous places for journalists to work. Eight have been killed in Somalia since the beginning of 2009.
Hotel Shamo is often chosen by government officials to host events and at one time was a popular lodging option for foreign journalists. Recently-released Canadian journalist Amanda Lindhout and Australian photojournalist Nigel Brennan were staying at the hotel before their capture last year.
The hotel security staff say that they were kicked out of the room prior to the ceremony, as government security officials wanted sole handling of the event. The government officials were attending the graduation of 43 students from the local Banadir University.
The attack is the latest in a string of incidents linking al-Shabab to common insurgent tactics used by Islamist terrorist groups in other parts of the world. Until recently suicide bombings were an alien practice in Somalia.
In September, al-Shabab claimed responsibility for a bold attack on a meeting between government officials and the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia, known as AMISOM, which killed 17 peacekeepers, including the top Burundian commander. Two vehicles containing explosives were given entry to the AMISOM base and subsequently blew up.
The rebel group is battling for control of the war-ravaged nation against the Western-backed Transitional Federal Government, led by former Islamic insurgent Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed. Rebel groups control much of southern and central Somalia, as well as significant portions of the capital city, Mogadishu.
The government is being bolstered by the continuing presence of the peacekeeping force composed of Ugandans and Burundians. The AMISOM forces are mandated with the protection of key city sites such as the airport, seaport, and presidential palace.
The official death toll from the blast is expected to continue to rise, with some reports indicating that more than 60 people have been found dead.