NAIROBI - Somali officials say the country’s president and prime minister are safe following an attack by militant group al-Shabab on the presidential palace in Mogadishu.
Witnesses reported explosions and heavy gunfire in and around the presidential compound known as Villa Somalia as several gunmen stormed the gates and tried to force their way inside just as many Somalis were sitting down to break their Ramadan fast.
The witnesses also say the gun battle died down by early evening. In a series of Twitter messages, the president’s office said the attack on Villa Somalia has been “foiled” and the area is secure thanks to Somali army and African Union forces.
“We heard a big explosion and there was major, major fight between soldiers and these guys al-Shabab, and it was happening right outside my window,” said Hussein Arab Isse, a member of parliament who was inside the compound at the time of the attack.
Somali police officials tell VOA Somali service that they are now “counting the bodies” to determine the casualties.
“President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, the prime minister and other ministers are all safe,” government spokesman Ridwan Haji told VOA’s Somali service. I spoke to the prime minister and other ministers, and they are all fine.”
The president was not at the palace at the time of the assault, which Al-Shabab has claimed responsibility for.
An al-Shabab said the group entered and captured parts of the palace compound during the attack, but Haji said that while it is possible that one or two of the gunmen may have entered the compound, they “did not succeed in their plan.”
A former government official in Mogadishu said the president was attending an Iftar event at the fortified Mogadishu airport compound along with the presidential guard, leaving Villa Somalia more vulnerable to the attack.
This is the second time this year that al-Shabab has tried to attack the presidential compound, which also houses government offices and residences. A suicide car bomb and gun attack on the site in February left at least 14 people dead.
The Somali militant group, which seeks to impose its own version of Islamic law in Somalia, has stepped up its assaults on government targets in recent months, attacking the parliament building twice and claiming responsibility for assassinations of government officials.
An African Union peacekeeping mission in the country has reclaimed territory from al-Shabab, but the militants continue to strike at government and international targets in the capital and increasingly in neighboring Kenya.
The United Nations special representative for Somalia, Nicholas Kay, called Tuesday’s attack an “attempt to rob Somalis of the peaceful state they deserve.”