MOGADISHU, Somalia — At least 18 people were killed in the Somali capital Mogadishu Saturday when two blasts ripped through a busy parking lot next to a restaurant, police said, in attacks quickly claimed by Shebab Islamists.
"There were two heavy explosions at a parking lot near the National Theatre," police officer Mohamed Adan told AFP.
"At least 18 people were killed in the attack," said Mohamed Dahir, another police officer. An AFP reporter saw 12 bodies at the scene of the attack.
"Successful operations carried out in Hamarweyne," the Shebab said on their Somali-language Twitter feed, referring to the Mogadishu district where the attacks occurred. The group's English-language account has been suspended.
The al-Qaida-linked Islamists claimed to have killed "key officials", but witnesses said the casualties they had seen looked like ordinary civilians.
Police and witnesses said the first blast was a car laden with explosives that was parked by the Village, a restaurant close to the theater that was targeted by suicide bombers in September 2012.
"Minutes after the bomb went off, I saw severed flesh flying past," said Idris Yusuf, who was in the restaurant at the time of the attack and who sustained slight leg injuries.
Nearby buildings were destroyed, the witness said, and passers-by came running over to help the victims.
The second blast, which followed minutes later, was a "suicide bomber who blew himself up in the crowd of civilians who rushed to the scene of the first blast," Ahmed Weli Said, a Somali government security official said.
The National Theatre re-opened in 2012 after two decades. Just weeks later, Shebab insurgents struck, with a suicide bomber blowing herself up and killing two of the country's top sporting officials who were attending an event there.
Somalia's embattled government, selected in November in a UN-backed process, was hailed at the time by the international community as offering the best chance for peace in Somalia since the collapse of the central government in 1991.
A 17,700-strong African Union force fighting alongside the national army has forced Shebab fighters from several towns in the past two years.
Shebab fighters, who have claimed responsibility for a string of recent attacks aimed at overthrowing the government, remain a potent force, however.
Their most brazen recent attack was a suicide commando assault on a fortified UN compound in the center of Mogadishu in June that killed 11.
The UN compound attack used similar tactics to those employed in April, when a nine-man suicide commando unit blasted its way into Mogadishu's main court complex, killing 34 people.
On July 12, just a couple of days into the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, insurgents killed at least five people in multiple attacks in the capital. A suicide bomber rammed an African Union convoy and a grenade was thrown into a hotel.
Shebab fighters claimed members of their suicide brigade carried out the attack, calling it "a martyrdom operation targeting a convoy of crusaders."
Attacks involving roadside bombs or improvised explosive devices that kill one or two people have become so commonplace in Mogadishu that they barely make the headlines any more.
The Shebab have retained strongholds in parts of rural southern and central Somalia, while another faction has dug into remote and rugged mountains in the northern, semi-autonomous Puntland region.