Somalia's president narrowly escaped an assassination attempt Monday when a car bomb exploded outside the parliament building, officials said. The blast and a subsequent gun battle left 11 people dead, including the president's brother.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack in Baidoa, the only town controlled by the government. But if it is linked to an Islamic militia that has seized control of much of southern Somalia, it could cause peace talks between the two sides to fall apart.
The bomb exploded outside the parliament building where President Abdullahi Yusuf had given a speech about 10 minutes earlier, said Mohamed Adawe, a journalist who witnessed the blast.
Yusuf's bodyguards chased the suspected bombers, killing six of them in a gun battle. The five other dead — including the president's brother — were in his convoy, officials said.
"This explosion was intended to kill the president, but he escaped and he is safe," government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari said.
Eight cars were burned in the blast, including three from Yusuf's convoy.
The blast came a day after a nun was gunned down outside a hospital where she worked in Mogadishu, about 150 miles from Baidoa. There was no claim of responsibility, but many fear the shooting could be linked to worldwide Muslim anger toward Pope Benedict XVI.
In a speech last week, the pope quoted a medieval text that characterized some of the teachings of Islam's founder as "evil and inhuman."
Somali Foreign Minister Ismail Mohamed Hurre said the government believes the nun's killing and Monday's car bomb have "the hallmarks of al Qaeda." The terror organization's leader, Osama bin Laden, has called Somalia a battleground in his war on the West.
"Osama bin Laden has made it clear he wants to do harm to the government and to the president in particular," Hurre told The Associated Press in Nairobi, Kenya. He also said the government believes the same people were responsible for both attacks. He did not elaborate.
Somalia has not had an effective central government since 1991, when warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and then turned on one another, pulling the country into anarchy.
The current government was established two years ago with the support of the United Nations, but it has failed to assert any power outside its base in Baidoa.
An Islamic militia seized control of Mogadishu in recent months and has extended its reach over much of southern Somalia, in direct challenge to the government.
The militia has imposed strict religious rule in the areas under its sway, and its Islamic courts are credited with bringing a semblance of order to the country. Many in the West, however, fear a Taliban-style regime could emerge.
By Mohamed Olad Hassan