Al-Shabaab has claimed responsibility for the attack on the Hayat Hotel – Copyright AFP Hassan Ali ELMI
At least eight civilians have been confirmed dead in an attack by Islamist militants on a hotel in the Somali capital Mogadishu, an official said Saturday, as security forces continued to battle gunmen holed up inside.
Fighters from the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Shabaab group stormed the popular Hayat Hotel on Friday evening in a hail of gunfire and bomb blasts.
Sporadic gunfire and loud explosions could still be heard early Saturday, many hours after the start of the assault.
It is the biggest attack in Mogadishu since Somalia’s new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, was elected in May after many months of political instability.
The jihadist group, which has been waging a deadly insurgency against Somalia’s fragile central government for about 15 years, claimed responsibility.
“The security forces continued to neutralise terrorists who have been cordoned inside a room in the hotel building; most of the people were rescued but at least eight civilians were confirmed dead so far,” security commander Mohamed Abdikadir told AFP.
“The security forces rescued dozens of civilians including children who were trapped in the building safely,” he added.
Dozens of people have been gathering outside the hotel to discover the fate of loved ones caught up inside the hotel.
“We have been looking for a relative of mine who was trapped inside the hotel, she was confirmed dead together with six other people, two of them I know,” said witness Muudey Ali.
Witnesses reported at least two large explosions as the gunmen stormed the hotel, a popular spot frequented by government officials and ordinary Somalis.
Police spokesman Abdifatah Adan Hassan had told reporters late Friday that the initial blast was caused by a suicide bomber who attacked the hotel with several other gunmen.
Witnesses said a second blast occurred just a few minutes later, inflicting casualties on rescuers and members of the security forces and civilians who rushed to the scene after the first explosion.
– ‘Random shooting’ –
The militants claimed responsibility for the attack in a brief statement on a pro-Shabaab website.
“A group of Al-Shabaab attackers forcibly entered Hotel Hayat in Mogadishu, the fighters are carrying out random shooting inside the hotel,” the group said.
Earlier this week, the United States announced that its forces had killed 13 Al-Shabaab fighters in an air strike in the central-southern part of the country as the Islamist militants were attacking Somali forces.
The US has carried out several air raids on the militants in recent weeks.
In May, President Joe Biden ordered the re-establishment of a US troop presence in Somalia to help local authorities combat Al-Shabaab, reversing a decision by his predecessor Donald Trump to withdraw most US forces.
In recent weeks, Al-Shabaab fighters have also launched attacks on the Somalia-Ethiopia border, raising concerns about a possible new strategy by the jihadists.
Somalia’s new president Mohamud said last month that ending Al-Shabaab’s insurgency required more than a military approach, but that his government would negotiate with the group only when the time was right.
Al-Shabaab fighters were driven out of the capital in 2011 by an African Union force, but the group still controls swathes of countryside.
It continues to launch deadly strikes on civilian and military targets, with popular hotels and restaurants frequently hit.
Earlier this month, new Prime Minister Hamza Abdi Barre announced the appointment of the group’s former deputy leader and spokesman, Muktar Robow, as religion minister.
Robow, 53, publicly defected from Al-Shabaab in August 2017, with the US government at one point offering a $5 million bounty for his capture.
The Horn of Africa nation has been mired in chaos since the fall of the military regime of President Siad Barre in 1991.
His ouster was followed by a civil war and the ascendancy of Al-Shabaab.
The deadliest attack in Somalia occurred in October 2017 when a truck packed with explosives blew up in a bustling commercial district of Mogadishu, killing 512 people.