Washington - At least 15 people were killed in a truck bombing Saturday in the central Somali town of Beledweyne, among the dead are five police officers. Witnesses and officials said a big truck loaded with explosives detonated in the afternoon near a security checkpoint, damaging buildings.
'The explosion rocked the entire city and sent huge plumes of black smoke into the air,' Abdi Mumin, a resident in the town told VOA.
Speaking to VOA, Beledweyne District Commissioner Omar Osman Alasow confirmed the attack and the death of a number of civilians.
'Our security forces, who had been tipped about the truck, were in the middle of inspection when it detonated,' he said. 'Three government soldiers and nearly a score of civilians were killed in the attack and many others injured.'
Witnesses put the number of police officers killed in the attack at five.
Beledweyne Deputy District Commissioner Abdullahi Salah said that rescue operations were still in progress.
'We cannot provide an exact number of casualties. We are working to find out the exact number of injured people as well as to recover bodies from the rubble,' he said. 'The death toll could be high.'
Media reports say at least 40 people were injured in the blast. Some of those in critical condition have been airlifted to hospitals in Mogadishu for treatment.
The target of the attack is still unclear, but Salah confirmed the explosive-laden truck was at a nearby taxation and security checkpoint.
Police officer Ahmed Aden told Reuters that other police fired at the truck in a failed attempt to keep it from ramming the checkpoint.
Center of uprising
Beledweyne, about 300 kilometers (186 miles) north of Mogadishu, has been the center of a recent local community mobilization against al-Shabab.
Local officials including the former governor of the Hiran region, Ali Jeyte Osman, led community forces who fought alongside Somali government forces, seizing dozens of villages from the militant group.
This week, as a part of preparation for a large anti-al-Shabab offensive, regional politicians including Osman met with Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud in the central town of Dhusamareb and discussed plans to further strengthen military pressure on al-Shabab.
Deadliest attack in years
Today's explosion is believed to be the deadliest attack in the town since June 2009, when more than 20 people, including then Somalia National Security Minister Omar Hashi Aden, were killed.
Al-Shabab militants have admitted carrying out the attack.
The explosion comes hours after the Somali National Army said they killed more than 30 al-Shabab militants in a two-day operation in the Shabellow area in the southern Mudug region, central Somalia.