Militants stormed a hotel Friday evening in the coastal Somali city of Kismayo, sparking gunbattles and fears of heavy casualties.
The attack began when an explosives-laden car detonated at the front entrance of the Asasey hotel, a popular meeting spot for regional officials and visitors from the diaspora. Militants then stormed inside and opened fire.
Witnesses told VOA's Somali service that regional security forces were trading fire with the militants. The witnesses reported hearing several explosions, presumably from hand grenades.
Jihadist group al-Shabab immediately claimed the responsibility for the attack through al-Andalu Radio, the group's FM station.v Reuters quoted an al-Shabab spokesman, Abdiasis Abu Musab, as saying, "It was a suicide attack," and that the fighting was continuing.
A VOA reporter in the town said the number of casualties was unclear. At least one member of Somalia's federal parliament was thought to have been in the hotel at the time of the attack.
Al-Shabab frequently carries out bombings in Mogadishu and other parts of Somalia against government, military and civilian targets.
The attack in Kismayo, about 485 kilometers south of Mogadishu, came amid preparation for regional elections. The port town once served as a major stronghold for al-Shabab militants.