Nine people, including senior regional officials, were killed in twin car bombings claimed by Al-Shabaab in central Somalia on Monday, police said, as the government escalates an offensive against the Islamists.
Two cars packed with explosives were detonated minutes apart outside local government offices in Beledweyne, a city at the heart of recent offensives against the Al-Qaeda-linked militants who control swathes of Somalia.
“The initial information we have received confirms the death of nine people,” including a state minister and a commissioner, said Mohamed Moalim Ali, a local police commander.
The health minister of Hirshabelle state — where Beledweyne is located — and a deputy district commissioner were among the dead, Ali added, with 10 others injured in the “suicide attacks.”
Somali forces and “international security partners” have been waging an aggressive counterinsurgency in recent weeks, with the government on Monday announcing the killing of Abdullahi Yare, a top Al-Shabaab operative, in a joint air strike on Saturday in the south of the country.
“This leader… was the head preacher of the group and one of the most notorious members of the Shabaab group,” the ministry of information said.
A co-founder of Al-Shabaab with a $3 million US bounty on his head, Yare was believed to be next in line to take over the leadership of the movement from its ailing chief Ahmed Diriye, according to the ministry.
The US Africa Command said Monday that it carried out a drone strike targeting Al-Shabaab two days earlier in coordination with Somalia’s federal government.
“The command’s initial assessment is that the strike killed an Al-Shabaab leader and that no civilians were injured or killed,” it said in a statement.
Somalia’s recently elected President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has vowed an all-out war on the jihadists, after a string of deadly attacks, including a 30-hour hotel siege in the capital Mogadishu that killed 21 people.
Mohamud last month urged citizens to stay away from areas controlled by Al-Shabaab as government forces supported by local clan militias launched offensives in Hiraan region, of which Beledweyne is the capital.
Military officials and clan elders told AFP that local residents had decided to take up arms against the militants, who have been accused of extorting money from them.
Witnesses of Monday’s twin bombings described a smaller blast followed by a massive second explosion.
“The explosion was huge, and it destroyed most buildings” nearby, said Mohamud Addow, who witnessed the attack.
“I saw several people rushed to hospital and some dead bodies… some were unrecognisable.”
The United States, which recently restored a military presence in Somalia to fight the jihadists, condemned the bombings.
The attacks “targeted gov’t officials working to bring peace to the region & healthcare workers tending to the wounded,” the US embassy in Mogadishu said on Twitter.
The U.S. condemns the al-Shabaab attacks in #Beledweyne that targeted gov't officials working to bring peace to the region & healthcare workers tending to the wounded. Our condolences to the bereaved. We support the people of #Somalia in their fight for a peaceful & just future.
— U.S. Embassy Mogadishu, Somalia (@US2SOMALIA) October 3, 2022
Al-Shabaab, which claimed responsibility for the bombings, has waged a bloody insurrection against the Mogadishu government for 15 years and remains a potent force despite an African Union operation against the group.
Its fighters were ousted from the capital in 2011 but continue to stage attacks on military, government, and civilian targets.
The group last week claimed responsibility for a bomb blast that killed a top Somali police officer near the Al-Shabaab-controlled village of Bursa, some 30 kilometers (20 miles) north of Mogadishu.
US forces have in the past partnered with African Union soldiers and Somali troops in counterterrorism operations and have conducted frequent raids and drone strikes on Al-Shabaab training camps throughout Somalia.
Last month, the US military said it had killed 27 jihadist fighters in an air strike near Bulobarde, the main town on the road linking Mogadishu to Beledweyne.
It said the air strike was carried out “at the request” of the Somali government.
President Joe Biden decided to restore a US military presence in Somalia in May, approving a request from the Pentagon, which deemed his predecessor Donald Trump‘s rotation system too risky and ineffective.