MOGADISHU: Thirteen people were killed and 20 others wounded in central Somalia on Saturday after a suicide bomber drove a truck packed with explosives toward a security checkpoint in the town of Beledweyne, police said.
“We have recovered the bodies of 13 people, most of them civilians who stayed nearby,” said Ahmed Yare Adan, a local police officer.
“Around 20 wounded people were already taken to hospitals, and we believe the number of the casualties could rise,” he said.
The attack, which damaged nearby buildings, trapping people under the debris, came after Somalia’s government admitted to suffering “several significant setbacks” in its fight against Al-Shabab militants.
The militants have waged an insurgency for over 15 years to overthrow the internationally backed government in Mogadishu.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Saturday’s bombing.
Police officer Abdukadir Yasin, who rushed to the scene after the blast, said rescuers were pulling injured victims to safety from under the rubble.
“The destruction caused is immense, more than 10 dead bodies were confirmed already and the death toll can be higher,” he said.
An African Union force deployed in Somalia in 2007 with a six-month mandate but still remains on the ground, with the government now seeking to delay a planned reduction of foreign troops by three months.
UN resolutions call for the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia ATMIS force to be reduced to zero by the end of next year, handing over security to the Somali army and police.
Somali troops launched a major offensive against the Al-Qaeda affiliated Al-Shabab in central Somalia in August last year, joining forces with local clan militias in an operation backed by the AU force and US airstrikes.
Somalia’s President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud took office in May last year vowing “all-out war” against Al-Shabab, who were driven from Mogadishu in 2011 but control swathes of the countryside.
Mohamud, who has recently been visiting the frontline, said in August that government would “eliminate” the jihadists by the end of the year.
But Somalia’s national security adviser wrote to the UN requesting a 90-day delay to the planned pullout of 3,000 AU troops by the end of September.
In the letter seen by AFP, he said the government had “managed to re-liberate towns, villages and critical supply routes” during its offensive but had suffered “several significant setbacks” since late August.
“This unforeseen turn of events has stretched our military forces thin, exposed vulnerabilities in our frontlines and necessitated a thorough reorganization to ensure we maintain our momentum in countering the Al-Shabab threat,” the letter said.