The death toll in a truck bomb explosion in the central Somali town of Beledweyne has risen to 18, a top regional official has said, as the Horn of Africa nation battles armed groups.
Abdirahman Dahir Gure, the interior minister of Hirshabelle state where Beledweyne is located, announced the latest toll on Saturday in the wake of the blast that targeted a security checkpoint in a residential area.
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Abdifatah Mohamed Yusuf, the director-general of the Hirshabelle Ministry of Humanitarian and Disaster Management, said that 40 people were wounded.
“Twenty of the wounded have been admitted to Beledweyne hospitals, while another 20 are in critical condition, prompting a request for their airlift to Mogadishu for advanced medical treatment,” he told The Associated Press.
Earlier, a local police official put the toll at 10 in the blast that comes as the government forces have intensified operations against al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabab armed group.
“It was a truck loaded with explosive devices that forcefully passed through the government-manned checkpoint, and a pick-up vehicle belonging to security personnel was chasing it when it exploded,” witness Abdikadir Arba, who said he was about 200 meters (656 feet) away and was one of the first responders, told The Associated Press by phone.
Buildings turned into rubble
Videos shared on social media and some of them verified by Al Jazeera appear to show local residents searching for survivors in the rubble of the destroyed buildings.
Police officer Ahmed Aden told the Reuters news agency that buildings and shops close to the blast were reduced to rubble.
A woman, Halima Nur, who was near the site, told Reuters her niece and others had been in a nearby shop and could not be reached. “I do not know what to say, all the kiosks are now just rubble. I can’t trace my niece,” she said.
No group has claimed responsibility for the explosion in the town located in central Somalia’s Hiran region, which has recently witnessed battles between the military and the al-Shabab armed group.
The al-Qaeda-linked group has increased attacks since Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who was elected for a second term last year, declared an “all-out war” on the group, which aims to overthrow the fragile internationally-backed government in Mogadishu.
The government forces on Friday claimed to have killed dozens of fighters in the state of Galmudug.
The Horn of Africa country has been plagued by armed rebellion for 15 years, with the main threats emanating from al-Shabab and the ISIS-linked (ISIL) armed groups.
The al-Shabab armed group was driven from Mogadishu in 2011 but it still controls swaths of the countryside.
President Mohamud, who has recently been visiting the front line, said in August that the government forces would “eliminate” the armed groups by the end of the year.