The death toll from a massive weekend truck bomb in a busy shopping district of Mogadishu surged to at least 137, police said Sunday, warning it could rise further after one of the worst-ever attacks to hit war-torn Somalia.
The figure was a huge jump from an initial police estimate of 20 dead in the hours after the deadly explosion ripped through the Somali capital on Saturday, causing scenes of carnage and widespread devastation.
"We are getting different numbers in terms of the casualty from the medical centres, but we have confirmed so far 137 [dead], most of them burned beyond recognition, police official Ibrahim Mohamed told AFP.
"The death toll could be higher because there are more than 300 wounded, some of them seriously," he said, describing it as "the deadliest attack ever."
Rescuers worked through the night to try to pull bodies from the rubble after the truck bomb exploded outside of the Safari Hotel on a busy road junction, leveling buildings and leaving many vehicles in flames.
In a posting on Facebook, the deputy speaker of the Somali Senate suggested there was evidence the toll could be well over 200.
"We visited Medina hospital where the director told us that 218 dead bodies were admitted the hospital since yesterday," wrote Senator Abshir Ahmed, saying the hospital chief had told them 130 of the bodies had been "burned beyond recognition."
"This is the most painful incident I can remember."
There has been no immediate claim of responsibility, but al-Shabab, a militant group aligned with al-Qaeda, has carried out dozens of suicide bombings in its bid to overthrow Somalia's internationally-backed government.
Mogadishu's Mayor Tabid Abdi Mohamed also visited those wounded in the blast, saying he lacked words to describe what he had seen.
"What I have seen at the hospitals I have visited is unspeakable," he said, calling on everyone to help in the rescue efforts.
"There is no tragedy worse than when someone comes to the dead body of their relative and cannot recognize them."
The explosion occurred at a junction in Hodan, a bustling commercial district which has many shops, hotels and businesses in the city's northwest.
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.
Security official Abdukadir Muktar earlier said hundreds of people had been either wounded or killed in the blast, saying that it went off at "a densely-populated intersection, so you can imagine the magnitude of casualties it could cause."
As the rescue work continued, 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.
Medics at that hospital told him they had treated around 205 patients, half of them whom were in serious condition, he said in a televised address to the nation.
"Today's incident was a horrible attack carried out by al-Shabab against innocent civilians that was not aimed at specific Somali government targets," he said.
"This shows how these violent elements are ruthlessly and indiscriminately targeting innocent people who were busy minding their own business."
Although the Safari Hotel was popular, it was not one frequented by government officials — which have often been targeted by Shabab militants.
In any case, 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."
"We did not sleep last night and worked with rescue workers," said Abdirisak Mohamed, one of the owners of a building that was destroyed, saying he believed there were still bodies under the rubble.
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.
Meanwhile, the National Union of Somali Journalists said a freelance cameraman, Ali Nur Siyaad, had been killed and four other journalists wounded in the explosion.
Al-Shabab was forced out of the capital six years ago by African Union and Somali troops, and subsequently lost control of major towns across southern Somalia.
However, the militants continue to control rural areas and launch attacks on military, government and civilian targets in Somalia, as well as terrorist raids in neighbouring Kenya.
Saturday's blast came two days after Somalia's defence minister and army chief both resigned from their posts without explanation.