MOGADISHU: Heavy gunfire rang out across central Mogadishu on Friday as Somali special forces battled to dislodge insurgents holed up next to a hotel they bombed the previous evening, and as the death toll stemming from that attack neared 30.
Islamist al Shabaab fighters set off a bomb outside the Hotel Maka Al-Mukarama on Thursday night before retreating to an adjacent building, from where they fired on soldiers who tried to enter. Another bomb exploded later about 1 km (0.6 miles) away.
Rescuers said the number of dead from the first explosion, which destroyed several buildings, could well rise.
The attack, on a hotel popular with government officials, is part of a pattern of Al Shabaab assaults on high-profile targets in East Africa. It comes days after US forces in Somalia stepped up airstrikes against the group, which is fighting to dislodge a Western-backed government protected by peacekeepers.
“The militants are still fighting from inside a civilian house adjacent to the hotel,” police officer Major Musa Ali told Reuters on Friday morning. “… (They) are fighting back with grenades and Kalashnikov (rifles).”
He said 29 people, mostly civilians, had died in the attack and its aftermath, and 80 had been wounded.
Authorities deployed a contingent of US-trained Somali troops known as the Alpha Group to try to flush out the militants on Friday, just after two wounded soldiers were carried away from the hotel.
The hotel attack, unusually for Somalia, began at night, and rescuers had no lights or equipment to help dig the wounded out from the rubble, said Abdikadir Adem, the director of the privately-run Aamin ambulance service.
“The scene is fearful … in magnitude, it is similar to the Oct 14 bombing,” he said, referring to a truck bomb that killed more than 500 people in the city in 2017.
“The death toll may rise and rise.”
Screaming for loved ones
Somalia has been convulsed by lawlessness and violence since 1991, and a further layer of chaos was added in 2015 with the formation in the north of a splinter group of former al Shabaab insurgents who pledged allegiance to Islamic State.
At least 25 people have been killed this week in clashes between the two militant groups, a military official from the semi-autonomous region of Puntland told Reuters.
Al Shabaab has also carried out attacks in neighbouring countries contributing to the African Union peacekeeper force inside Somalia, including one on a hotel and office complex in Kenya in January that killed 21 people.
Under President Donald Trump, Washington has stepped up attacks against the group, and US Africa Command announced six air strikes it says have killed 52 militants since Feb 23.
Al Shabaab’s military spokesman said on Friday it was still in control of the Mogadishu hotel, located on a street lined with hotels, shops and restaurants.
“The government tried three times to enter the building but we repulsed them,” said Abdiasis Abu Musab.
With most roads in the city were shut to traffic, including those leading to hospitals, soldiers at checkpoints near the blast site repeatedly fired into the air to control crowds of frantic residents.
Many locals ran around screaming the names of loved ones, having been searching for missing relatives since Thursday.
“I have been running to and fro from the blast scene to hospitals since yesterday evening in search of my husband and brother … I have just seen them in hospital. They are in a critical condition,” mother-of-three Halima Omar told Reuters.