MOGADISHU, Somalia — Al-Qaida-linked militants launched their deadliest single bombing in Somalia on Tuesday, killing 70 people and demonstrating how the group that blocked aid to famine victims can still mount devastating violence even after most of its fighters fled the capital in August.
A truck loaded with drums of fuel exploded outside the Ministry of Education on one of central Mogadishu's busiest streets, where students and their parents were registering for scholarships offered by the Turkish government.
Rebels of the militant group al-Shabab immediately claimed responsibility for the bombing, saying it was striking government officials and foreigners — referring to African Union peacekeeping troops supporting the U.N.-backed regime.
Although the Islamic fighters made what they called a "tactical withdrawal" from their bases in Mogadishu amid an AU offensive in August, they had vowed to carry out devastating suicide attacks.
The thunderous blast covered the city in dust more than a half-mile away and left corpses sprawled amid burning vehicles. Rescuers rushed scores of victims with burns and severed limbs to Medina Hospital, said nurse Ali Abdullahi. Even in a city beset by war and anarchy for two decades, the bombing horrified medical workers.
"It is the most awful tragedy I have ever seen," he said. "Imagine — dozens are being brought here minute by minute. Most of the wounded people are unconscious and others have their faces blackened by smoke and heat."
At least 70 people were killed and 42 wounded, said Ali Muse, chief of Mogadishu's ambulance service.
Maj. Gen. Fred Mugisha, the commander of the African Union Mission to Somalia force, known as AMISOM, said the attack targeted several Somali government institutions. The suicide bomber detonated the explosives after the vehicle rammed a checkpoint outside a compound housing several government ministries, Mugisha said.
White House press secretary Jay Carney called the attack a "despicable and cowardly act."