REPORTING FROM MOGADISHU, SOMALIA AND JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA -- It was supposed to be a symbol of hope: The newly reopened National Theater in Mogadishu was the most potent sign of the peaceful change that has swept the Somali capital since Al Shabab militants fled the city in August.
It turned into a scene of bloody chaos Wednesday when a bombing killed 10 people. The attack apparently was aimed at assassinating Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohammed Ali, who was attending a ceremony with many officials of his Western-backed Transitional Federal Government, or TFG.
Two of the country's top sports officials, Somali Olympic Committee President Aden Yabarow Wiish and Somali Football Federation chief Said Mohamed Nur, were killed in the blast.
Al Shabab claimed responsibility for the attack, boasting in a tweet that the "large explosion brings the show to an end leaving scores of MP's (sic) TFG officials and intelligence personnel dead." Both sides in the conflict tend to exaggerate casualties caused by their attacks.
Ali told a news conference after the bombing that a female suicide bomber triggered the blast. A witness gave a similar account to The Times.
"The explosion blasted as I was speaking at the microphone," the prime minister told reporters. He said the minister for planning, Abdullahi Godah Barre, sustained minor injuries when he was hit in the neck by shrapnel.
But Al Shabab challenged that account, claiming to have infiltrated the theater beforehand and planted the explosives.
"This operation wasn't carried out by a female as they allege but everything was carefully planned and orchestrated by specially trained unit," the group claimed in another tweet.
Mogadishu has gradually come back to life since Al Shabab's withdrawal, with cafes, restaurants and the fish market opening and Turkish Airways launching flights to the capital. But the growing sense of peace has been frayed by regular, devastating bomb attacks from the Al Qaeda-linked militants.
Mogadishu, ruled for decades by rival clan warlords, has seen its longest stretch of relative peace since the country's collapse into civil war and chaos in 1991, after the ousting of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre.
The theater explosion came as the prime minister stood at a podium addressing a ceremony marking the first anniversary of Somalia's television station.
"It was traumatic, because as the people gathered in celebration, they were targeted with a huge explosion," said Jeylani Nor Iikar, minister of national development and housing, who survived the blast.
Sahro Ahmed, a witness, told The Times he noticed a young, anxious woman in dark clothing sitting behind him in the theater.
"Everyone was happy, but she looked so worried as she was sitting behind me," he said. Shortly afterward, he said, he saw her move to a seat at the front of the theater. "A few minutes later a big explosion went off in the area where she was, and her body was scattered in pieces."
Another witness, Amina Salah, said some people were dazed and in shock after the blast, while others helped police rescue the wounded and collect bodies.
"It was gruesome scene," she said. "Bodies were lying in the theater as blood dripped down the stairs."
The theater, a looming concrete edifice, closed down when Somalia slid into civil war and reopened only last month.
The government has signed a road map leading to democratic elections, which are supposed to be held this year, despite the continuing bomb attacks. Al Shabab still retains control over much of southern Somalia, though troops from the African Union, Kenya and Ethiopia are trying to crush the rebellion.
-- Lutfi Sheriff Mohammed in Mogadishu and Robyn Dixon in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Photo: Somalis help a man wounded in a blast at the National Theater in Mogadishu on Wednesday. Credit: Farah Abdi Warsameh / Associated Press