KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) — An al-Qaeda-linked Somali militant group claimed responsibility Monday for twin bombings in Uganda that killed 74 people watching the World Cup final on TV, saying the militants would carry out attacks “against our enemy” wherever they are.
The blasts came two days after a commander with the Somali group, al-Shabab, called for militants to attack sites in Uganda and Burundi, two nations that contribute troops to the African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia.
Al-Shabab, whose ranks are swelled by militant veterans of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, long has threatened to attack outside Somalia’s borders, but the bombings late Sunday are the first time the group has done so.
“We will carry out attacks against our enemy wherever they are,” said Sheik Ali Mohamud Rage, a militant spokesman in Mogadishu. “No one will deter us from performing our Islamic duty.”
Ugandan officials said earlier that they suspected the Somali group was involved. One of the targets was an Ethiopian restaurant — the al-Shabab militants despise Ethiopian.
The attacks on two soft targets filled with civilians raised concerns about the capabilities and motives of al-Shabab, which the U.S. State Department has declared a terrorist organization.
A California-based aid group, meanwhile, said one of its American workers was among the dead. Police said Ethiopian, Indian and Congolese nationals were also among those killed and wounded, police said.
At least three of the wounded were in a church group from Pennsylvania who went to an Ethiopian restaurant in Kampala early to get good seats for the game, said Lori Ssebulime, an American married to a Ugandan. Three Ugandans in the group were killed when a blast erupted. One of the wounded was 16-year-old American Emily Kerstetter.
“Emily was rolling around in a pool of blood screaming,” said Mrs. Ssebulime, who has helped bring in U.S. church groups since 2004. “Five minutes before it went off, Emily said she was going to cry so hard because she didn’t want to leave. She wanted to stay the rest of the summer here.”
Ugandan government spokesman Fred Opolot said Monday there were indications that two suicide bombers took part in the late Sunday attacks, which left dozens wounded. Mr. Opolot said the death toll also had risen to 74.
Blood and pieces of flesh littered the floor among overturned chairs at the scenes of the blasts, which went off as people watched the game between Spain and the Netherlands.
“We were enjoying ourselves when a very noisy blast took place,” said Andrew Oketa, one of the hospitalized survivors. “I fell down and became unconscious. When I regained, I realized that I was in a hospital bed with a deep wound on my head.”
The attacks appeared to represent a dangerous step forward by al-Shabab, analysts said, and could mean that other East African countries working to support the Somali government will face attacks.
“Al-Shabab has used suicide bombers in the past and shown no concern about civilian casualties in its attacks,” said David Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia and a professor at George Washington University in Washington. “Some elements of al-Shabab have also prohibited the showing of television, including the World Cup, in Somalia.”
At a wrap-up news briefing Monday in South Africa, FIFA President Sepp Blatter denounced the violence against fans watching the game.
“Can you link it to the World Cup? I don’t know… . Whatever happened, linked or not linked, it is something that we all should condemn,” he said.
Florence Naiga, 32, a mother of three children, said her husband had gone to watch the final at the rugby club.
“He did not come back. I learnt about the bomb blasts in the morning. When I went to police, they told me he was among the dead,” she said.
Invisible Children, a San Diego, Calif.-based aid group that helps child soldiers, identified the dead American as one of its workers, Nate Henn, who was killed on the rugby field. Mr. Henn, 25, was a native of Wilmington, Del.
“He sacrificed his comfort to live in the humble service of God and of a better world,” the group said in a statement on its website.
The FBI has sent agents based at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, to assist in the investigation and look into the circumstances of the death of the American citizen, a State Department official in Washington said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the probe.
International police agency Interpol said in a statement Monday that it also is dispatching a team to Uganda.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni toured the blast sites Monday and said that the terrorists behind the bombings should fight soldiers, not “people who are just enjoying themselves.”
“We shall go for them wherever they are coming from,” Mr. Museveni said. “We will look for them and get them as we always do.”
Ugandan army spokesman Felix Kulayigye said it was too early to speculate about any military response to the attacks.
Somalia’s president also condemned the blasts and described the attack as “barbaric.”
Al-Shabab, which wants to overthrow Somalia’s weak, U.N.-backed government, is known to have links with al Qaeda. Al-Shabab also counts militant veterans from the Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan conflicts among its ranks. Their fighters also include young men recruited from the Somali communities in the United States.
Ethiopia, which fought two wars with Somalia, is a longtime enemy of al-Shabab and other Somali militants who accuse their neighbor of meddling in Somali affairs. Ethiopia had troops in Somalia between December 2006 and January 2009 to back Somalia’s fragile government against the Islamic insurgency.
In addition to Uganda’s troops in Mogadishu, Uganda also hosts Somali soldiers trained in U.S.- and European-backed programs.
White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said the United States was prepared to provide any necessary assistance to the Ugandan government.
President Obama was “deeply saddened by the loss of life resulting from these deplorable and cowardly attacks,” Mr. Vietor said.
Officials said Sunday’s attacks will not affect the African Union summit in Uganda from July 19-27. Many African leaders are expected to attend.
Sunday’s terror attacks are not the first to hit East Africa. U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, were the targets of deadly twin bombings by al Qaeda in 1998, killing 224 people, including 12 Americans. An Israeli airliner and a hotel in Mombasa, Kenya, were targeted by terrorists in 2002.
The United States worries that Somalia could be a terrorist breeding ground, particularly since Osama bin Laden has declared his support for Islamic radicals there.
Associated Press writers Malkhadir M. Muhumed in Nairobi, Kenya; Mohamed Olad Hassan in Mogadishu, Somalia; Godfrey Olukya in Kampala; Michelle Faul in Johannesburg; and Matthew Lee and Kimberly Dozier in Washington contributed to this report. Jason Straziuso reported from Nairobi, Kenya.
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