MOGADISHU - Desperate Somalis searched for news of missing loved-ones on Monday, after a massive truck bomb in Mogadishu killed at least 276 people and left 300 injured in the deadliest ever attack to hit the conflict-torn nation.
Residents of the Somali capital, while wearily accustomed to regular bombs and attacks by Islamist militants, have been left stunned by the monster explosion Saturday which gutted surrounding buildings and left victims burned beyond recognition.
A statement from the information ministry on Monday said "276 people were killed in the blast... and 300 wounded were admitted at the different hospitals in Mogadishu."
The government said it had set up an emergency committee to help relatives find the missing, with a crisis centre in the capital that residents can turn to.
Police official Ibrahim Mohamed said that many of the victims were "burned beyond recognition" in what he described as "the deadliest attack ever."
Turkey sent a military plane full of medical supplies to Mogadishu on Monday, also evacuating some of the injured for treatment.
The blast occurred at a junction in Hodan, a bustling commercial district which has many shops, hotels and businesses in the city's northwest. Several experts said the truck was probably carrying at least 500 kilogrammes (1,100 pounds) of explosives.
Abdulahi Nuradin was one of many helping friends and family hunting for news of the missing.
"It has been more than 24 hours now and we don't have any traces or information about the sister of my friend. We can assume she is dead, with her flesh somewhere amongst the horribly burned dead bodies," he said.
"We went to several hospitals to seek any information but no to avail, the family is now 99 percent convinced she is dead, I saw so many severed pieces of human flesh at the hospitals, you cannot even look at them," he added.
- 'Devastation beyond imagination' -
Local government official Muhidin Ali said more than 100 bodies who were impossible to identify had already been buried.
"The gruesome dead bodies were displayed at the hospitals for relatives but a few were recognised and most of them not at all, the devastation is something beyond the imagination of humankind," he said.
There has been no immediate claim of responsibility, but the Shabaab, a militant group aligned with Al-Qaeda, carries out regular suicide bombings in Mogadishu in its bid to overthrow Somalia's internationally-backed government.
The group has a history of not claiming attacks whose scale provokes massive public outrage.
The previous deadliest assault took place in October 2011, when a truck bomb targeting a government office left 82 dead and 150 injured.
Saturday's blast, the worst in Somalia's history, came six years after Shabaab militants were pushed out of Mogadishu by African Union and Somali troops.
While they were also pushed out of major towns across southern Somalia the militants still control rural areas and launch attacks on military, government and civilian targets in Somalia, as well as terrorist raids in neighbouring Kenya.
According to the Nairobi-based Sahan thinktank, at least 723 people were killed and over 1,000 injured in bomb attacks in 2016 in Somalia.
- 'Targeting innocent people' -
Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, better known as Farmajo, declared three days of mourning as he visited the attack site and then met with some of the wounded at a nearby hospital.
"Today's incident was a horrible attack carried out by Al-Shabaab against innocent civilians that was not aimed at specific Somali government targets," he said in a televised address to the nation.
"This shows how these violent elements are ruthlessly and indiscriminately targeting innocent people."
Mogadishu's mayor, Tabid Abdi Mohamed, also visited those wounded in the blast and said the horror of the attack was "unspeakable".
"There is no tragedy worse than when someone comes to the dead body of their relative and cannot recognise them."
Hundreds of people, chanting anti-violence slogans and wearing red or white bandanas around their heads in a show of grief, took to the streets of Mogadishu on Sunday to condemn the deadly attack that has shocked Somalians.
"We have seen what the terrorists can mercilessly do by shedding the blood of innocent civilians," the mayor told the protesters after they ended their march at a square in southern Mogadishu. "We need to stand united against them".
Activist Abukar Sheik added: "There is no house in which people are not crying today."
A regional security expert said it was likely the truck bomb was triggered before it reached its true target.
The devastation caused was widespread. Muhidin Ali, a Mogadishu resident who was close by at the time said it was, "the biggest blast I have ever witnessed, it destroyed the whole area."
Security officials said hundreds of people had been in the area at the time of the blast, with police saying it was difficult to get a precise number of victims because the bodies had been taken to different medical centres while others had been taken directly by their relatives for burial.
Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani wrote on Twitter that the country's embassy had been badly damaged in the blast and one of its top officials wounded.
Somali journalists and Red Cross workers were also among those killed.