Thousands of Somalis have demonstrated against those behind the bombing that killed more than 300 people at the weekend, defying police who opened fire to keep them away from the site of the attack.
Wearing red headbands, the crowd of mostly young men and women marched through Mogadishu amid tight security. They answered a call to unity by the mayor, Thabit Abdi, who said: “We must liberate this city, which is awash with graves.”
The attack in the heart of Mogadishu on Saturday has been blamed on al-Shabaab, the local violent Islamist group, and was one of the most lethal terrorist operations anywhere in the world in recent years.
The Somali capital has suffered scores of bombings over recent years but not on this scale.
“We are demonstrating against the terrorists that massacred our people. We entered the road by force,” said Halima Abdullahi, who lost six of her relatives in the attacks.
Mohamed Salad, a university student, called on God to punish those responsible for the bombing.
The true death toll in the attack will probably never be known. The government buried at least 160 of those killed because they could not be identified after the blast.
In the town of Dusamareb in central Somalia, residents also marched for several hours and clerics called for the war against the militants to be stepped up.
The president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, pledged to rid Somalia of al-Shabaab, an affiliate of al-Qaida, after taking power in February in an election seen as a key milestone on the battered east African country’s gradual return to stability and prosperity.
The bombing, which involved two vehicles, is a major setback to the government, underlining its inability to guarantee security even in the capital.
Both vehicles detonated before reaching their intended target, which investigators believe was the heavily defended compound where the United Nations, embassies and forces from the African Union are based.
One, a large truck with around 350kg of explosives concealed under agricultural produce and a tarpaulin, was set off at a checkpoint in the centre of a crowded neighbourhood of the city and ignited a petrol tanker nearby.
Al-Shabaab, which began an insurgency in 2007, has not claimed responsibility for the attack.
Analysts suggested that the organisation may not want to undermine any popular support by associating itself with such a huge loss of civilian life.
The method and type of attack – a large truck bomb – is increasingly used by the al-Qaida-linked organisation and one of two men detained by security forces in connection with the bombing has told his interrogators that it was the work of the group.
The man who drove the truck has been identified by Somali officials as a former soldier in Somalia’s army whose home town was raided by local troops and US special forces two months ago in a controversial operation in which 10 civilians were killed, including three children.
Officials said the driver was a former member of the Islamic Courts Union, a conservative Islamist movement which briefly controlled much of Somalia in 2006 before being ousted by a US-backed invasion by Ethiopian troops. He joined the army in 2010 but defected from his military post to join al-Shabaab around five years later.
The local businessman and tribal leader who vouched for the truck to allow it to pass checkpoints before it exploded has been arrested and is being held in jail, the Somali intelligence official said.
The smaller vehicle – a Toyota minivan – was stopped at a checkpoint several hundred metres short of its target and the driver detained. This bomb then detonated, possibly set off by remote control or by security officials, without causing casualties.
The minivan’s driver is in a prison in Mogadishu, said a senior Somali police officer, Capt Mohamed Hussein.
Officials described the driver as a veteran militant who had been involved in previous attacks in Mogadishu, including one on the Jazeera hotel in 2012 in which eight people died.
He has been cooperating with the investigation. Officials said the man was proud of what he had done. “He says it is for jihad,” one said.
The US involvement in Somalia intensified in the later years of the Obama administration and has increased significantly since Donald Trump became president, with greater latitude given to local commanders to order airstrikes or take part in raids.
Critics have argued this risks greater civilian casualties, which, in the tight-knit world of Somalia’s complex clan system, can prompt feuds and revenge attacks. Al-Shabaab is adept at exploiting such divisions.
Mohamed Ali, a police captain at the scene, said it was fine for the demonstrators to access the scene to express their grief.
“For some who could not see their relatives alive or dead, the only chance they have is to at least see the spot where their beloved were killed,” he told Reuters.
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