NAIROBI — Al-Qaida-linked militants in Somalia launched a major attack Friday on the presidential palace in Mogadishu, killing at least 17, including a senior official. But the country's president escaped unharmed.
Witnesses say the attackers stormed the gates of the presidential palace, known as Villa Somalia, around the time of Friday prayers and tried to force their way inside the compound.
Security officials say the assailants wore military uniforms to gain access. The chief of staff to Somalia's prime minister was among those killed.
The al-Shabab militant group has claimed responsibility.
United Nations envoy to Somalia, Nick Kay, speaking to VOA from London, said he received a phone call from Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud shortly after the attack.
“The president told me of two vehicle bombs exploding outside the rear gate, one shortly after the other, and then armed attackers entering, trying to enter the Villa Somalia complex, possibly up to about 15 or so armed attackers.”
Kay added that the president sounded "very calm and very composed."
A message on the official Twitter account for the Somali presidency thanked AU forces and the Somalia national army for stopping the attack. It called the incident “another act of desperation from a dying animal.”
Al-Shabab has lost territory over the past three years to a concerted military effort led by the AU force AMISOM. But the group still controls areas of southern and central Somalia and has continued to wreak havoc in the capital, with periodic attacks against government or international targets.
The Somali government has announced plans to resume operations soon to remove the group from their remaining strongholds.
Kay said the group has become more violent as it comes under increasing pressure.
"We've seen an increase in the last few weeks in al-Shabab activity in Mogadishu, terrorist attacks, and I'm afraid that this is probably a pattern that we'll see for some time to come now as they have no other means to inflict terror. "
Last week al-Shabab claimed responsibility for a deadly car bombing targeting a United Nations convoy near the Mogadishu airport, where the U.N. has its headquarters. At least six people were killed in that attack.