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Islamic militant group al-Shabab claims Uganda bombing attacks

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 12, 2010; 3:54 PM

KAMPALA, Uganda -- An al-Qaeda-linked Somali militia claimed responsibility Monday for back-to-back bombings in the Ugandan capital that killed at least 74 people watching the World Cup final on television, marking the first major international attack by the group in a region where the United States and its allies are attempting to stem the rise of Islamic radicalism.

In the Somali capital, Mogadishu, a top spokesman for the hardline al-Shabab said the group carried out the bombings, and he threatened further attacks if Uganda and Burundi continued to supply troops to an African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia.

"Al Shabab was behind the blasts," Ali Mohamud Raghe, the militia's spokesman told reporters. "Thanks to our martyrs who carried out the attacks."

(Video: Aftermath of the bombings in Kampala)

The powerful explosions tore through two venues in Kampala where crowds were watching broadcasts of the World Cup final late Sunday, killing at least 74 and wounding scores of others, Ugandan police said. At least one American was killed and several were wounded, according to the U.S. Embassy here.

The bombings unfolded at the Kyadondo Rugby Club and at the Ethiopian Village restaurant where hundreds of boisterous and cheering soccer fans, including clusters of foreigners, had gathered to watch Spain beat the Netherlands in the final in South Africa.

Among the dead at the rugby club was Nate Henn, 25, of Wilmington, Del., a worker for Invisible Children, a California-based aid group that helps child soldiers, the group said on its Web site. A 16-year-old girl from Ellicott City, Md., Emily Kerstetter, was injured, according to WMAR-TV in Baltimore. She was in Kampala with her grandmother's church group from Pennsylvania.

Ugandan Police Chief Kale Kaihura immediately pointed blame at al-Shabab, a hard-line militia with growing ties to al-Qaeda that has perpetrated several bombings in recent months in Somalia.

Last week, the militia's top leader, Mukhtar Abdurahman Abu Zubeyr, accused African Union peacekeeping forces in Mogadishu of committing "massacres" against Somalis. Ugandan and Burundian troops make up the peacekeeping force. Abu Zubeyr warned that his forces would take revenge against the peoples of Uganda and Burundi.

Uganda, a key U.S. ally, is also a training ground for soldiers for Somalia's transitional government, which al-Shabab is seeking to overthrow. The training program is backed by the United States and European nations. The United States officially considers al-Shabab a terrorist organization.

The militia, which seeks to create an Islamic emirate and has imposed Taliban-like dictates, has banned playing soccer in many areas and prohibited broadcasts of the World Cup, describing the sport as "a satanic act" that corrupts Muslims.

(Video: Somali soccer players face threats from extremists)

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni visited the bombing sites Monday and vowed to pursue those responsible, according to news agencies.

"This shows you the criminality and terrorism that I have been talking about," he said at the rugby club. "If you want to fight, go and look for soldiers. Don't bomb people watching football."

He also said of the attackers, "We shall go for them wherever they are coming from. We will look for them and get them as we always do."

At the Kyadondo Rugby Club in the Lugogo section of Kampala, witnesses and police said two explosions killed at least 43 people who had gathered on the rugby field to watch the soccer final on a large-screen television. As people went to help the victims of the first blast, a second, more powerful bomb detonated, causing greater casualties, witnesses said.

Police said they suspect that the second blast was set off by a suicide bomber. A police official said investigators found the head of a man who appeared to have Somali features.

As of Monday afternoon, cars belonging to the victims were still parked on the rugby field, where organizers had set out rows of white plastic chairs for the soccer fans.

"All of those cars belonged to those who died," said Alphonse Motebasi, a police commander from a nearby station. "I was picking up bodies until 7 a.m.," he said. Pointing down as his trousers, he added: "See the blood?"

At the Ethiopian Village restaurant, crowds of Ugandans gathered Monday, peering over the walls at the carnage inside as police stood guard and investigators combed through debris that looked like the aftermath of a tornado. The onlookers shook their heads at the overturned tables on the restaurant's patio, the shattered glass and shreds of clothing strewn about and the dried blood stains on the floor.

"How can someone kill innocent Ugandans?" demanded Godfrey Ivimba, 34, the owner of a printing business, after he glimpsed the scene over the restaurant's wall. Residents said the restaurant was popular with Ethiopians and Eritreans, as well as other foreigners.

According to an American resident of Uganda, three of the wounded at the restaurant were members of a church group from Pennsylvania, among them a 16-year-old girl, the Associated Press reported.

If al-Shabab carried out Sunday's attacks, the bombings would represent a significant escalation in its efforts to sow chaos in the region. The militia controls much of southern and central Somalia. In recent months, it has staged cross-border raids into neighboring Kenya, but it has never attacked another nation on a scale seen on Sunday. Nevertheless, Somalia's neighbors have long feared that Somalia's civil war could spill across their borders.

Foreign jihadists trained in Afghanistan are gaining influence inside al-Shabab and inspiring the militants to import al-Qaeda's ideology and tactics from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to Somali intelligence officials, former al-Shabab fighters and analysts. Last month, two New Jersey men were arrested in New York and charged with planning to travel to Somalia to join al-Shabab.

White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said the United States was prepared to assist the Ugandan government in any manner, as both President Obama and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton condemned the attacks and offered their condolences.

"The United States stands with Uganda," Clinton said. "We have a long-standing, close friendship with the people and government of Uganda and will work with them to bring the perpetrators of this crime to justice."

Invisible Children said on its Web site that Henn, the American killed in the rugby club bombing, "sacrificed his comfort to live in the humble service of God and of a better world, and his is a life to be emulated." It added, "Nate's life ended while living out this dream, a selfless dream of putting others first, seeking peace, and living a life of integrity."

Staff writer William Branigin in Washington and special correspondent Yusuf Hagi Hussein in Mogadishu contributed to this report.

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