A bomb blast inside a crowded theater in Somalia's capital claimed the lives of at least three people but did not kill the country's prime minister and other top government officials who were present, media and African military reports said today.
According to an account by the African Union Mission for Somalia (AMISOM), a female suicide bomber managed to blend in to a crowd that had gathered at Mogadishu's National Theatre for a celebration for Somali TV's first anniversary. When she detonated the explosive device, at least three people were reportedly killed, including two major sports figures: the secretary of Somalia's soccer federation and the president of Somalia's Olympic committee. An American State Department official told ABC News witnesses had reported the female suicide bomber appeared to be very young.
Somalia's prime minister, Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, was standing at a podium to deliver a speech when the bomb went off but was not injured, The Associated Press reported.
"The cowardly act of terrorism by al Qaeda will not deter us nor prevent us from doing our responsibilities," Ali said after the attack. "It indicates the terrorists' desperation to attack civilians when we defeat them in the battlefront."
The terrorist group al-Shabaab, which recently announced a formal alliance with al Qaeda, claimed responsibility for the attack. A self-identified spokesperson for the group denied that a female suicide bomber had been used.
"This operation wasn't carried out by [a] female as they allege but everything was carefully planned & orchestrated by specially trained unit," the spokesperson said on Twitter. The spokesperson said the explosives were not detonated by a suicide bomber, but had been planted in the theater before the gathering.
The soccer organization's sister group, the Federation of Uganda Football Associations, said in a statement that the soccer federation president's death was a "robbery not only to the people of Somalia but to the entire African continent."
Somalia's National Theatre was opened for the first time in more than 20 years just two weeks ago. At the opening ceremony, hundreds gathered under the open sky because the roof had been destroyed in the course of the country's ongoing civil war, Voice of America reported at the time. Somalia's president Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed said the opening of the theater was a result of recent gains in the fight against al-Shabaab.
"Large explosion brings the show to an end at the Mogadishu Theatre..." the al-Shabaab spokesperson tweeted today.
The State Department official said it is still unclear what effect the attack will have on security and other planned events in the nation's capital. The theater had been considered as the meeting place for an upcoming civic event where 800 leaders from across Somalia are expected to gather.
The attack comes after reports emerged of a possible schism within al-Shabaab between its more nationalist leaders and the jihadis who wish to strike at global targets.
Last month, one of al-Shabaab's most high-profile American members, the Alabama-born Omar Hammami, also known as al-Amriki, appeared in a video that was posted online in which he said he feared other members of the terror group were going to kill him over "matters of the strategy." Just days ago, another major al-Shabaab leader publicly criticized the group publicly for killing civilians.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.