MOGADISHU, Somalia – Few people noticed when a security detail ushered the president of Somalia from his three-ton armored vehicle to an ordinary car. The simple, routine security measure saved his life.
Moments later, a massive car bomb exploded outside the makeshift parliament building in Baidoa, the only town President Abdullahi Yusuf's virtually powerless government can rightfully claim to control. The blast destroyed the armored car and killed Yusuf's brother and four other members of the presidential detail.
The audacious attack Monday was a stark reminder of the U.N.-backed administration's weakness, and jeopardizes fragile peace talks between Yusuf's administration and the powerful Islamic fundamentalists who are extending their control over Somalia.
The president escaped on foot with guards, witness Abdisalam Mohammed Nor Hassan told The Associated Press. Other witnesses said the president was cut by flying glass.
As Yusuf fled, a gunbattle broke out between his bodyguards and eight suspected accomplices of an apparent suicide bomber. Six were killed and two were captured, Foreign Minister Ismail Mohamed Hurre said.
Yusuf's driver lost a hand in the blast.
No one so far has claimed responsibility. Two people were arrested, Hurre said. He had no details on the suspects.
If the peace effort fails, Somalia may again be plunged into civil war, this time pitting the weakened government, which is backed by neighboring Ethiopia, against the Islamic group, backed by Eritrea.
"The rest of the world needs to be concerned about Somalia," said Matt Bryden, a consultant analyst.
A spokesman for the Islamic group denied it had a hand in the attack.
"The perpetrators of the Baidoa blast are enemies of Somali people and Islamic courts have no hand in it," Abdirahman Mudey said.
Hurre claimed the assassination attempt and the killing of a nun in the capital Mogadishu Sunday bore the hallmarks of Al Qaeda, whose leader Usama bin Laden has said Somalia is a battleground in his war on the West.
The United States has accused Somalia's Islamic group of sheltering suspects in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
The Islamic militia replaced its moderate leader with hardline cleric Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, whom the U.S. has linked to Al Qaeda. Aweys denies the allegations.
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.
In recent months the Islamic group has extended its control over much of southern Somalia, challenging the weak, U.N.-backed government that hasn't been able to exert any power outside Baidoa, 150 miles from Mogadishu.
With the arrival of the Islamic group has come a hard-line, Taliban-style rule complete with public floggings and executions.
In June the militia seized Mogadishu after its fighters defeated warlords who had controlled the capital since 1991. In recent days fighters loyal to the Islamic group have arrived at the key commercial port of Kismayo, one of the last remaining seaports outside of their control. Both pro-government warlords and Islamic militia have been digging in, while residents from the town, 260 miles southwest of Mogadishu, have been fleeing across the border to Kenya.