Somali security forces continue an operation aimed at ending a hotel siege in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, where they have been battling with al-Shabab militants for the past 24 hours after they detonated several explosive devices, security officials said.
The death toll from Friday’s assault on the Hayat Hotel, an upscale hotel frequented by government officials, elders and people from the diaspora community, has risen to at least 20, with more than 40 others injured, according to hospital sources.
A senior police official who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media told VOA that a number of heavily armed militants were still fighting with government soldiers inside the hotel premises Saturday night.
“The militants have been firing from parts of the hotel for the last 24 hours, with our troops engaging in an operation to flush them out of the hotel and end [the] siege,” the official said.
Elders among the dead
The official added that the fatalities include four assailants, in addition to the civilian victims. He said the number of militants still fighting inside the hotel is unknown.
According to Mogadishu Ambulance services, at least 13 bodies were pulled from the rubble in the collapsed part of the hotel buildings.
Dr. Abdulkadir Abdirahman Adan, the founder of Aamin Ambulance service in Mogadishu, told VOA that its medical team transported wounded people to hospitals for treatment.
Businessmen and local traditional elders were among those killed and injured in the attack. According to relatives, the hotel’s co-owner, Abdirahman Iman is among those killed.
Gunfire and explosions could still be heard Saturday night as security forces surrounded the building and used guns mounted on the backs of vehicles to attack the militants.
The special security operations unit known as the Alpha Group and trained by the U.S. entered the ground floor as insurgent snipers held positions upstairs, according to witnesses.
The attack began Friday evening just after sunset prayers, when a car bomb exploded at the gate to the hotel. At least two other explosions followed, and then gunmen posing as police officers stormed the hotel, witnesses said.
The al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab group has claimed responsibility for the attack.
There is no official statement from the government regarding the attack.
In a separate attack in Mogadishu overnight involving mortar shells, five civilians from the same family were killed and 10 others were injured when mortars landed on their residences near Mogadishu airport.
No one has claimed responsibility for the mortar attacks, but Somali security officials said al-Shabab had carried out similar mortar attacks many times in the city.
During the siege Somali troops succeeded in rescuing many civilians who were stranded inside hotel rooms.
Survivors who spoke to VOA Somali recounted harrowing stories of hiding under tables, jumping from windows as armed attackers continued firing indiscriminately against those in the hotel and its surroundings.
"It was a beautiful Friday, which is like the weekend for Somalis … the beautiful conversations and happy faces of the hotel guests immediately turned into explosions, gunfire, blood and a shocking sense. I ran into a room next to the hotel reception area, along with dozens of people. We spent at least 40 minutes of desperation there before we got a chance to break windows and run,” said one survivor, Abdinasir Mohamed Gedi.
Gedi added that he could see people jumping from high windows at the hotel amid huge explosions that sent plumes of smoke into the air.
“The hotel area was covered with black smoke and flying flames. I could see people jumping from windows onto the buildings next to the hotel, among them old and overweight people,” said Gedi. “Some who already were injured from the explosions must have broken their legs or even perished after they jumped.”
Another survivor, Abdirahman Ahmed, was among nine other survivors. He said he and the others spent about six hours inside a barber shop next to the hotel before they were rescued by government soldiers in the early morning hours.
“It was like being holed up into a dangerous corner waiting for death to come. We never thought we could survive because we could hear the militants shouting, “God is great. Kill whoever you see,” Ahmed said. “When we were rescued, I could see a headless body apparently killed by an explosion and two other dead bodies lying in the street.”
Saturday’s attack is the first deadly attack by al-Shabab on an upscale target in Mogadishu since Somalia’s new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, took office in May.
The U.S. embassy in Mogadishu condemned the attack in a brief statement it released on Twitter, saying that the U.S. will continue working with the Somali government in the battle against terrorism.
Abdulkadir Abdulle contributed to this story from Mogadishu.