Officials in Somalia say at least 29 people were killed in an overnight attack by al-Shabab militants on two popular Mogadishu restaurants.
A spokesman for the Somali security forces said Thursday that the dead include 18 civilians, seven of them women, and all six attackers who stormed the Posh Treats and Pizza House restaurants in the Somali capital's Hodan district.
Earlier, a security source told VOA Somali that five members of the Somali special forces also died during a fierce gun battle with the gunmen. The source said three men were killed in an explosion from a grenade thrown by the militants.
Security forces ended the militants' siege of the second restaurant early Thursday after battling the gunmen for almost 11 hours.
Major Abdifatah Bashir Ali, commander of police in Hodan, told VOA that special forces launched a major operation just before 6 a.m. local time and were able to "overpower" the militants who were holed up inside.
The civilians killed include a Syrian national who fled his homeland and was working in Somalia as a chef.
Mogadishu ambulance services said they evacuated 26 people who were wounded in the attack.
The attack started Wednesday evening with a car bomb explosion outside the two restaurants, causing massive damage.
Witnesses said the gunmen first entered Posh Treats, then proceeded to Pizza House where they put up fierce resistance against the security forces who were trying to end the siege.
Ambulance worker Abduqlakadir Abdullahi Abdi said he refused to leave the site as the standoff continued into the night, deciding instead to wait outside the restaurant to evacuate the wounded.
As the sound of gunfire echoed in the background, he told VOA that he was not able to enter the building because of the intensity of the gunfire and wanted to wait outside to save lives whenever the security forces secured the building.
"I'm just 10 steps away from the building but I’m waiting to see if there are more wounded people in the building; we heard there are people with fractures inside," he said. "We can’t go home because there is no other ambulance in service."
The two restaurants offer food, spa, lodging, snooker and shisha as well as refreshments, and is popular with Somalis from the diaspora. Staff at the two restaurants include foreigners from Kenya, Ethiopia and Syria.
The al-Shabab militant group said it carried out the attack. On its website, the group said it targeted the restaurants "because there are women who sell their body for money." There has been no independent confirmation of that accusation.
Witnesses, including a VOA reporter who was at the scene, said they heard a hail of bullets and explosions as the special Somali forces known as Danab, or "lightning," pushed forward to end the siege. Security forces later confirmed to VOA that they had secured the building.
Pictures taken from the scene showed the bodies of several women in one of the rooms. Another picture showed relatives of the victims killed in the attack weeping outside the building.
The attack was the biggest in Mogadishu during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a time when the militants often escalate their attacks and assassinations.
The attack also came just hours after the militant group released purported audio of its elusive deputy leader, Mahad Karate, who was reported to have been the target of a U.S. drone strike on Sunday near the town of Sakow in Middle Jubba region. The group did not confirm or deny whether he was in the vicinity of the drone strike.
In the audio, the speaker urged the group’s fighters to escalate their attacks during "this Ramadan." He referred to the May 31 attack by U.S. and Somali forces on the village of Dar es Salam, where a U.S. Navy SEAL was killed. The audio does not refer to the attack Sunday near Sakow.
Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulle and Abdulaziz Osman contributed to this report.