NAIROBI — Two truck bombs in Somalia’s capital killed at least 189 people, the deadliest attacks in the country’s decade-long war with Islamist extremists, signaling that the insurgency is far from defeated despite years of U.S. counterterrorism operations.
Nearly all of the dead were killed by the first bomb, which exploded Saturday outside a popular hotel near a busy intersection in Mogadishu. The second truck bomb killed a few more people nearby.
The Somali capital is a frequent target of attacks by al-Shabab, an extremist group linked to al-Qaeda, but residents said they quickly discerned that the twin blasts were of a different order of magnitude.
The death toll continued to climb overnight. By Sunday afternoon, officials said they were still trying to calculate the number of victims. The Associated Press, quoting police and hospital sources, put the total at 189, while Somali lawmakers told Voice of America that it was 218.
A large swath of a city block appeared wiped out Sunday, and a tower of charred automobiles could be seen at the bombing site.
Somalia’s president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, declared three days of national mourning. The government blamed the carnage on al-Shabab, but the group has not claimed responsibility.
“Today’s horrific attack proves our enemy would stop nothing to cause our people pain and suffering. Let’s unite against terror,” Mohamed said on Twitter.
“Today is the worst day of my life. We are overwhelmed by the high number of the casualties. I have been working at this hospital for more than seven years and I never saw or heard this number of deaths,’’ said Ahmed Osman, a nurse in Mogadishu’s Medina Hospital, where many of the dead and wounded were taken.
Somalia has been battling al-Shabab insurgents since 2007, with the help of 22,000 troops from the African Union and a U.S. counterterrorism campaign that has expanded under President Trump.
While those operations have forced insurgents from territory they once controlled, they have not curbed al-Shabab’s ability to launch deadly and frequent attacks in Mogadishu, mostly targeting restaurants, hotels and places where officials gather. Meanwhile, Somalia has struggled to maintain a stable government or a defense force capable of challenging the Islamist militants. Last week, both the defense minister and the army chief resigned for reasons that remain unclear.
In the wake of Saturday’s attacks, one Mogadishu ambulance service underscored the scale of the bloodshed.
“In our 10 year experience as the first responder in Mogadishu, we haven’t seen anything like this,” Aamin Ambulance said on Twitter.
In a statement, the U.S. Mission to Somalia called the bombings “cowardly attacks” that “reinvigorate the commitment of the United States to assist our Somali and African Union partners to combat the scourge of terrorism.”
“Horrified by deadly attacks today,” Michael Keating, the top United Nations official in Somalia, wrote on Twitter.