A journalist was among those killed, and media workers and first responders were injured in a double car bombing Saturday in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu.
The dual car bomb blasts took place near the Ministry of Education and targeted the busy Zobe intersection in Mogadishu. The second blast detonated as first responders and local media arrived on the scene.
Somali police spokesperson Sadiq Dodishe said, “scores of people were killed in the attack.”
He said they could not immediately determine the number of fatalities or how many people had been injured in both blasts. Dodishe said they will share that information with the media as soon as an ongoing assessment concludes.
Multiple witnesses who spoke with VOA put the death toll as high as 20.
Witnesses say the first car bomb detonated at the checkpoint of the Ministry of Education.
The second blast occurred within minutes as people who rushed to help the wounded gathered, and ambulances arrived to transport the victims, one witness, who owns a shop nearby, told VOA on the condition of anonymity.
A police officer, who spoke to VOA on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media, said there are massive casualties from the attack, but it is too early to say how many have been killed or injured.
He confirmed that a local journalist, Mohamed Isse Konan, who worked for Universal TV, was among those killed.
The journalist’s station confirmed the death in a post to its Facebook page Saturday.
At least two journalists were injured, including Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulle, a freelancer who works with VOA’s Somali Service, and Reuters photojournalist Feisal Omar, according to Abdulle’s colleagues and the Somali Journalists’ Syndicate.
One of Abdulle’s relatives told VOA the journalist was hit in the abdomen by shrapnel and sustained other injuries, including the loss of at least two fingers, but that his condition is stable.
THE SJS said on Twitter that Omar is having emergency surgery to remove shrapnel from his chest and stomach.
Abdulle had previously survived a 2017 bombing in Mogadishu, the statement by SJS said.
VOA Acting Director Yolanda Lopez said Saturday she was “devastated” to learn that one of the broadcaster’s freelance journalists had been injured, and she condemned acts of violence that “endanger the lives of VOA reporters while covering news events.”
“The bravery and courage of our journalists – and their dedication that takes them wherever the story leads them – often means that they put themselves in harm’s way,” Lopez said in a statement. “We will continue to closely monitor the situation there on the ground and will provide support to our colleague as he recovers from his injuries.”
“It was a deafening and huge blast that sent plumes of smoke into the sky. The walls of the ministry building, and several other surrounding buildings [were] destroyed,” eyewitness Cabdullahi Osman, a driver of a three-wheeled motorized taxi, told VOA.
Briefing the media about the attack, a police spokesperson said the security forces foiled the attackers’ plan to enter the building.
“The purpose of the attack was to target and destroy an educational center that was serving Somali students, but the brave national army, who were tipped about the terrorist plot, prevented it,” he said.
The al-Qaida-affiliated Islamist group al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the deadly attack and said it had struck one of the Somali government ministries in Mogadishu.
Police spokesperson Dodishe told a news conference in Mogadishu that the terrorist group targeted civilians, including women, children and the elderly.
He said the cowardly terrorists targeted civilians with bomb blasts and they killed mothers with babies on their backs. He said that reveals the heinous action of the terrorists.
The Somali Journalist Syndicate called for those responsible to be “held accountable.”
“Today we are shocked and outraged by this heinous attack that killed our colleague,” said SJS President Mohamed Ibrahim in a statement.
Koona, 29, is the second journalist killed so far in Somalia this year, the SJS said. It added that the prominent journalist left behind his wife and young son.
Somalia is considered the most dangerous county for media in Africa, according to media watchdog Reporters Without Borders. Al-Shabab is the main killer of journalists in the country, with more than 50 killed since 2010, the RSF says.
Later Saturday, Amanda Bennett, CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), said in a statement: “The entire USAGM family is terribly distressed to learn that our VOA Somali reporter was injured in the explosion in Mogadishu earlier today. This is the second time he has suffered injuries while working for VOA’s Somali service, as the first time was back in another deadly blast in that city in October 2017 when I was VOA Director.
“I remain so proud and inspired by the bravery of journalists like our Somali colleague who is fearless in the face of danger as they continue to bring critically important stories to their audiences. All of us at USAGM are hoping for a full and speedy recovery,” Bennett said. USAGM is VOA’s parent agency.
A five-day national conference on combating violent extremism concluded Saturday in Mogadishu. Somalia President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, Prime Minister Hamza Abdi Barre, regional leaders and religious scholars attended the closing ceremony of the conference.
The Somali president recently announced a “total war” against al-Shabab militants. At the closing ceremony, he said that everyone who pays money to al-Shabab knows they are responsible for every explosion, every bullet fired and for all the destruction of every water well.
Prime Minister Barre said al-Shabab misrepresents the Islamic religion and praised religious scholars’ efforts to overcome the deadly al-Shabab ideology.
After the conference, Somali religious scholars issued a communique that called out al-Shabab and denounced their ideology. The scholars announced it is forbidden in Islam to pay money to al-Shabab.
Somalia has been grappling with security threats for years, with al-Shabab being one of the main threats in the Horn of Africa nation.
Since at least 2007, al-Shabaab has waged a deadly campaign against the Somali government and international forces that has claimed thousands of lives.