Somali man is carried away from  scene of suicide bomb attack during  university student graduation ceremony at a local hotel in Mogadishu, 3 Dec 2009
Somali man is carried away from scene of suicide bomb attack during university student graduation ceremony at a local hotel in Mogadishu, 3 Dec 2009

Militant Islamist group al-Shabab has denied responsibility for a deadly suicide blast Thursday that killed at least 22 people, including 3 government ministers and a number of Somalia's educated elite. The nation's embattled president addressed the country Thursday evening to condemn the attack, which the government blames on the Islamist rebels. 

President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed says that targeting the nation's graduate students and intellectuals is a tactic of foreigners and is not a service to the Somali people.

The spokesman for al-Shabab, Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage, denies responsibility for the attack, suggesting it was the product of a feud within the faltering government.

The bombing at the Hotel Shamo in Mogadishu ended a graduation ceremony for medical students of the local Banadir University, which was also being attended by a number of senior government officials.

Eyewitnesses say that the assailant received entry into the event dressed up as a woman.

Five months ago a suicide bombing in the Somali town of Baladwayne killed the government minister of interior security as well as at least 30 others. Then in September, two explosive-laden vehicles penetrated the base of the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia, known as AMISOM, resulting in the death of 17 peacekeepers.

The use of suicide attacks is a relatively new tactic in Somalia's long-running conflicts. Analysts believe that al-Shabab is coming increasingly under the control of al-Qaida-linked foreign operatives.

Ibrahim, a civil society activist for the Somali Institute for Research and Development, says that if al-Shabab carried out the attack - for which he says there is little doubt - the group's denial could be due to the shocking nature of Thursday's death toll.

Besides the government ministers, many of those killed were graduating medical students and their professors. Somalia's years of turmoil has left it with a very limited pool of educated professionals, a pool which has now shrunk even further.

Ibrahim, who believes that the alienating tactics of al-Shabab has already turned the majority of the Somali population against the rebel group, says that this latest attack is a significant blow to the Mogadishu government. He says that these attacks will only become more and more routine unless the government organizes a strong counter-force against its foes.

"They [the government] got the legitimacy, and I think they have the support of the international community as well as of the Somali people," Ibrahim said. "But then they keep sitting there, and they are not doing enough. They have to take some offensive and they have to be very strong."

A fourth government minister was injured in the blast. Three journalists were also killed, raising the total journalists killed this year to nine.

A collective statement from AMISOM, the United States, the European Union, the United Nations, the League of Arab States, and others on Thursday strongly condemned what it described as a "cowardly" attack on civilians and pledged continued support to the Mogadishu government.