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By Abdiqani Hassan
BOSASSO, Somalia (Reuters) - Seven people were killed in a car bomb attack in northern Somalia on Thursday on an armed convoy escorting two foreigners working for a company training local security forces.
The blast happened in Bosasso, a coastal city in the semi-autonomous Puntland region which has escaped the worst of a seven-year insurgency fought by militants seeking to impose a strict interpretation of Sharia law on the country.
"The car bomb targeted a convoy of cars," said shopkeeper Hussein Nur. "I could see victims being carried away."
A Reuters witness saw five bodies lying motionless on the ground as two cars burned fiercely and bursts of gunfire rang out. The Puntland authorities said seven people were killed and 37 people, mostly civilians, had been wounded.
The two foreigners were unharmed in the explosion. Witnesses said they worked for Saracen, a firm which has been training the Puntland Maritime Police Force.
There was no immediate comment from Saracen.
The bomb exploded in a busy market place shortly after 3 a.m. ET. The Puntland government blamed the Islamist rebel group al Shabaab for the attack. Al Shabaab declined to comment immediately.
The al Qaeda-linked militants have carried out frequent bombings in southern and central Somalia where their armed campaign against the Western-backed government is focused. But attacks in Puntland have been less common.
The 18,000-strong African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia already says it is over-stretched in the south of the country, and Western powers are concerned Somalia could descend back into anarchy if recent security gains are not cemented.
Puntland's president told Reuters last year the number of al Shabaab militants in the region had risen after the African troops drove al Shabaab out of their southern strongholds.
Whilst their numbers in the mountains outside Bosasso are limited, the authorities and Western diplomats are concerned al Shabaab may seek to strengthen ties with al Qaeda cells in Yemen, which is separated by the narrow Gulf of Aden.
(Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Edmund Blair and Jon Boyle)