Islamic militants stormed a hotel in Somalia’s capital, engaging in an hour-long battle with security forces that left at least 20 people dead, according to police and witnesses. At least 40 people were injured in the attack late Friday night, and security forces rescued many others, including children, from the scene at Mogadishu’s popular Hayat Hotel, they said Saturday .
The attack began with explosions outside the hotel before gunmen entered the building.
Somali forces are still trying to end the siege of the hotel nearly 24 hours after the attack began. Gunfire could still be heard Saturday night as security forces tried to contain the last gunmen thought to be holed up on the top floor of the hotel.
The Islamic extremist group al-Shabab, which is linked to al Qaeda, claimed responsibility for the attack, the latest in its frequent attempts to strike areas visited by government officials. The hotel attack was the first major terror incident in Mogadishu since Somalia’s new leader, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, took office in May.
In a post on Twitter, the US Embassy in Somalia said it “strongly condemns” the attack on Hayat.
“We extend our condolences to the families of the loved ones who died, wish a full recovery to those injured, and pledge continued support for #Somalia to hold the killers accountable and build when others are broken, ” it said.
There was no immediate word on the identities of the victims, but many are believed to be civilians.
Mohamed Abdirahman, director of Mogadishu’s Madina Hospital, told the Associated Press that 40 people were admitted there with wounds or injuries from the attack. While nine were sent home after receiving treatment, five are in critical condition in the ICU, he said.
“We were having tea near the hotel lobby when we heard the first shot, followed by a gunshot. I immediately ran to the hotel rooms on the ground floor and locked the door,” said witness Abdullahi Hussein by phone. “The militants went straight upstairs and started shooting. I was inside the room until the security forces came and rescued me.”
He said on his way to safety he saw “several bodies lying on the ground outside the hotel reception.”
Al-Shabab remains the deadliest Islamic extremist group in Africa.
The group has gained more territory in recent years, taking advantage of rifts in Somali security forces as well as disagreements between the seat of government in Mogadishu and regional states. It remains the biggest threat to political stability in the volatile Horn of Africa nation.
Forced to retreat from Mogadishu in 2011, al-Shabab is slowly making a comeback from the rural areas it retreated to, defying the presence of African Union peacekeepers as well as US drone strikes targeting the its warriors.
Militants in early May attacked a military base for AU peacekeepers outside Mogadishu, killing scores of Burundian troops. The attack came days before the presidential vote that returned Mohamud to power five years after he was voted out.