MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — Islamist militants stormed a hotel in the Somali capital, engaging in an hour-long firefight with security forces that left at least 20 people dead, police say and witnesses.
Additionally, at least 40 people were injured in Friday night’s attack and security forces rescued scores of others, including children, from the scene of Mogadishu’s notorious Hayat hotel, they said on Saturday.
The attack began with explosions outside the hotel before the gunmen entered the building.
Somali forces were still trying to end the siege of the hotel nearly 24 hours after the attack began. Gunshots could still be heard on Saturday evening as security forces tried to contain the last gunmen believed to be holed up on the top floor of the hotel.
The extremist Islamist group al-Shabab, which has links to al-Qaeda, claimed responsibility for the attack, the latest of its frequent attempts to hit locations visited by government officials. The attack on the hotel is the first major terrorist incident in Mogadishu since new Somali leader Hassan Sheikh Mohamud took power in May.
READ MORE: Somali Islamist group al-Shabab claims responsibility for bombing that killed at least 6
In a Twitter post, the US Embassy in Somalia said it “strongly condemns” the attack on the Hayat.
“We extend our condolences to the families of loved ones killed, wish a full recovery to the injured and pledge continued support for #Somalia to hold the murderers accountable and build when others destroy,” he said.
There was no immediate word on the identities of the victims, but many are believed to be civilians.
Mohamed Abdirahman, director of Madina Hospital in Mogadishu, told the AP that 40 people were admitted there with wounds or injuries resulting from the attack. While nine have been sent home after treatment, five are in critical condition in intensive care, he said.
“We were having tea near the hotel lobby when we heard the first explosion, followed by gunshots. I immediately rushed to the hotel rooms on the ground floor and I locked the door,” witness Abdullahi Hussein said by phone. “The militants came straight upstairs and started shooting. I was inside the room until the security forces come and save me.
He said that on his way to safety he saw “several bodies lying on the floor in front of the hotel reception”.
Al-Shabab remains Africa’s deadliest Islamist extremist group.
The group has grabbed even more territory in recent years, taking advantage of divisions among Somali security personnel as well as disagreements between government headquarters in Mogadishu and regional states. He remains the biggest threat to political stability in the volatile Horn of Africa nation.
Forced to withdraw from Mogadishu in 2011, al-Shabab is slowly returning from the rural areas where it retreated, defying the presence of African Union peacekeepers as well as US drone strikes targeting its fighters.
In early May, militants attacked a military base for AU peacekeepers outside Mogadishu, killing scores of Burundian soldiers. The attack came just days before the presidential vote that returned Mohamud to power five years after his election.