Kampala: Suspected Somali Islamists carried out two bomb attacks in the Ugandan capital that killed at least 64 people as they watched the World Cup final at a restaurant and a sports club, authorities said on Monday.
Suspicion fell on the al-Shabaab rebel group, which claims links with al-Qaeda, after the severed head of a suspected Somali suicide bomber was found at one of the blast sites.
The explosions ripped through two bars packed with soccer fans watching the final moments of World Cup final in an Ethiopian-themed restaurant and at a gathering in a Kampala rugby club on Sunday.
Al-Shabaab militants in Somalia have threatened to attack Uganda for sending peacekeeping troops to the anarchic country to prop up the Western-backed government.
“At one of the scenes, investigators identified a severed head of a Somali national, which we suspect could have been a suicide bomber,” said army spokesman Felix Kulayigye.
“We suspect its al-Shabaab because they’ve been promising this for long,” he said on Monday.
There has been no claim of responsibility for the bombings.
An al Shabaab commander in Mogadishu praised the attacks but admitted he did not know whether they were the work of his group, which is fighting to overthrow the Somali government.
“Uganda is a major infidel country supporting the so-called government of Somalia,” said Sheikh Yusuf Isse, an al Shabaab commander in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu.
“We know Uganda is against Islam and so we are very happy at what has happened in Kampala. That is the best news we ever heard,” he said.
One American was among those killed and President Barack Obama, condemning what he called deplorable and cowardly attacks, said Washington was ready to help Uganda in hunting down those responsible.
One bombing targeted the Ethiopian Village restaurant, a popular night-spot which was heaving with soccer fans and is frequented by foreign visitors. The second attack struck a rugby club also showing the match.
Twin coordinated attacks have been a hallmark of al-Qaeda and groups linked to Osama bin Laden’s militant network.
“Sixty-four are confirmed dead. Fifteen people at the Ethiopian Village and 49 at Lugogo Rugby Club. Seventy-one people are injured,” said police spokeswoman Judith Nabakooba.
She said 10 of the dead were either Ethiopian or Eritrean. The US embassy in Kampala said one American was killed.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni visited the rugby club.
“This shows you the criminality and terrorism that I have been talking about,” he said. “If you want to fight, go and look for soldiers, don’t bomb people watching football.”
“This is a cowardly act by al Shabaab terrorists,” Bereket Simon, the Ethiopian government’s head of information, told news agency in Addis Ababa.
Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia in 2006 to oust an Islamist movement from Mogadishu. That sparked the Islamist insurgency which still rages.
The blasts come in the closing moments of the final between Spain and the Netherlands and left shocked survivors reeling among corpses and scattered chairs.
“We were watching soccer here and then when there were three minutes to the end of the match an explosion came … and it was so loud,” witness Juma Seiko said at the rugby club.
Heavily armed police cordoned off both blast sites and searched the areas with sniffer dogs while dazed survivors helped pull the wounded from the wreckage.
Uganda, east Africa’s third largest economy, is attracting billions of dollars of foreign investment, especially in its oil sector and government debt markets.
But investors in Uganda and neighboring Kenya, which shares a largely porous border with Somalia, often cite the threat from Islamic militants as a serious concern.
“I certainly think the blasts will make risk appraisals tighter on Uganda. If it does transpire to be al Shabaab that will certainly raise the concerns of Western investors and also Chinese investors in Uganda,” said Alex Vines, Head of Africa Programmes at London’s Chatham House think-tank.
The Ugandan shilling fell slightly against the dollar on Monday after the blasts.
Ugandan tourism authorities said visitors need not worry about “a one-off incident that comes once in a blue moon.”
In Kampala, Somali residents voiced fears of a backlash.
“We are in fear and locked in our homes today for fear of Ugandans’ possible retaliation,” Bisharo Abdi, a Somali refugee, told news agency. “Some Ugandans are saying ‘kill Somalis’.”
In Washington, U.S. National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer said Obama was “deeply saddened by the loss of life resulting from these deplorable and cowardly attacks.”
“The United States is ready to provide any assistance requested by the Ugandan government,” said Hammer.
On Saturday, Somali President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed told news agency the growing number of foreign jihadists joining the Islamic insurgents posed a threat to regional security.
“The fact that the victims were enjoying the World Cup final reveals the evil and ugly nature of the perpetrators and the need to uproot from the region those who do not value the sanctity of human life,” Sharif said on Monday.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague condemned the “cowardly attacks during an event that was widely seen as a celebration of African unity.