By Abdi Sheikh
MOGADISHU (Reuters) - A suicide bomber rammed a vehicle packed with explosives into an African peacekeeping convoy in the Somali capital on Friday, officials said, killing eight civilians but no soldiers in the latest attack to expose the fragility of recent security gains.
The blast was claimed by Islamist al Shabaab rebels who carried out a deadly assault on a nearby United Nations base last month and another bombing in a Mogadishu market this week.
Al Shabaab was pushed out of bases in Mogadishu by Somali and African forces about two years ago, raising hopes of a return to relative security in a city hit by years of war.
But the militants have kept up guerrilla-style attacks and continue to control large rural areas, challenging the authority of a government less than one year old.
"I have confirmed the bomber and seven civilians died on the spot, and in the hospital, another civilian died of the blast wounds," Mohamed Osman, a senior police official, told Reuters.
"Most of the casualties were caused by shrapnel and splinters of blown-off iron sheet pieces."
Al Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, told Reuters the convoy was carrying a number of American officials, but the claim could not be confirmed independently.
"We are behind the martyrdom explosion ... The Americans were our main target," he said.
A diplomatic source, who asked to remain anonymous, said he believe the al Shabaab claim regarding the American presence in the convoy was false.
The blast flattened makeshift shops on Maka Al Mukarama road in central Mogadishu and ripped the wheels off one vehicle belonging to the African Union (AU) peacekeeping force in Somalia.
No peacekeepers died but a number of people were wounded, said an official from the Mogadishu mayor's office, although al Shabaab said at least eight AU troops had been killed.
"We shall not bury the remains of the bomber. We shall throw them into the rubbish pit," the mayor's secretary, Abdikafi Hilowle, told reporters at the scene.
"If al Shabaab are Muslims, they would not kill Muslims during Ramadan," he said, referring to the holy Islamic month which began this week.
Ambulance sirens wailed through the congested streets and a plume of black smoke billowed into the sky above the city near the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) base where 22 people were killed in an al Shabaab assault last month.
"We have carried eight injured civilians including two women," the director of Mogadishu's ambulance service, Abdikadir Abdirahman, said.
In the attack earlier this week, five policemen were wounded when al Shabaab blew up their vehicle in Mogadishu.
Somalia is attempting to rebuild itself after two decades of civil war and lawlessness, triggered by the overthrow of president Siad Barre in 1991.
The fragile government is being backed by international aid aimed at preventing it from becoming a haven for al Qaeda-style militants in east Africa.
(Additional reporting by Feisal Omar; Writing by James Macharia; Editing by Michael Roddy)