MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — A suicide bomber rammed a truck rigged with explosives into the blast walls around one of Mogadishu's most secure hotels, severely damaging the building and killing nine people including a Kenyan diplomat and a Chinese embassy guard, Somalian and Chinese officials said.
Somalia's Foreign Minister Abdisalam Omer told The Associated Press by phone from Djibouti that 20 people also were injured in the attack.
The attack was claimed by the al-Qaida-linked Al-Shabab group. The walled, luxury Jazeera Hotel is considered the most secure in Somalia's capital and is frequented by diplomats, foreigners and visiting heads of state. The blast killed one armed guard at the Chinese embassy inside the hotel, as well as three embassy staffers, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said Monday in a statement online.
"This is really scary — destroying the Jazeera hotel like this means no blast walls can make anyone safe," said bystander Yusuf Mohammed. The use of huge truck bombs is a relatively new phenomenon and throws into doubt whether any place in the capital is now adequately protected.
While blast destroyed at least eight rooms and stunned the residents of the Somali capital, it wasn't as bad as it might have been because the truck, which contained a ton of explosives, was stopped at the blast walls outside the hotel.
"The damage is big but a lot less because the truck bomb couldn't go beyond the walls that lay a few meters from the hotel's perimeter walls," said Mohammed Abdi, a police officer.
Nervous soldiers fired in the air to disperse a crowd who surged toward the hotel after the blast as medical workers transported wounded victims into awaiting ambulances.
The attack comes as Somali forces backed by troops from the African Union have launched an offensive, dubbed Operation Jubba Corridor, to push al-Shabab out of its last strongholds. The coalition already has driven the group out of the capital.
In a statement, Al-Shabab said the attack was in retaliation for the deaths of dozens of civilians at the hands of Ethiopian forces, which are part of the AU force, and that the hotel was targeted because it hosts "Western" embassies coordinating the offensive.
The attack came as President Barack Obama was leaving neighboring Kenya for Ethiopia. The president's visit has included discussions about how to deal with the threat of al-Shabab.
On Sunday, the White House Press Office issued a statement condemning the attack and extending condolences to the families of the victims.
"Despite the very real progress Somalia has achieved in recent years, this attack is yet another reminder of the unconscionable atrocities that terrorist groups continue to perpetrate against the people of Somalia," the statement read, adding that the United States remains steadfast in its commitment to work with Somalia to bring an end to such acts of terrorism.