Somali security forces are continuing an operation to end a siege on a hotel in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, where they have been fighting with al-Shabab militants for 24 hours after detonating several explosive devices, said security officials.
The death toll from Friday’s assault on Hotel Hayat, an upmarket hotel frequented by government officials, elders and members of the diaspora community, has risen to at least 20, with more than 40 others injured , according to hospital sources.
A senior police official who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media told VOA that a number of heavily armed militants were still fighting with government soldiers inside. hotel premises on Saturday evening.
“Militants have been firing from parts of the hotel for the past 24 hours, our troops are engaged in an operation to drive them out of the hotel and put an end to [the] headquarters,” the official said.
elders among the dead
The official added that the dead include four assailants, in addition to civilian casualties. He said the number of militants still fighting inside the hotel is unknown.
According to Mogadishu Ambulance Services, at least 13 bodies were pulled from the rubble in the collapsed part of the hotel buildings.
Dr. Abdulkadir Abdirahman Adan, founder of the Aamin ambulance service in Mogadishu, told VOA that his medical team was transporting injured people to hospitals for treatment.
Businessmen and local traditional elders were among those killed and injured in the attack. Relatives said hotel co-owner Abdirahman Iman was among those killed.
Gunfire and explosions could still be heard on Saturday night as security forces surrounded the building and used rear-mounted guns to attack the militants.
The US-trained special security operations unit known as Group Alpha entered the ground floor as insurgent snipers occupied positions upstairs, witnesses said.
The attack began on Friday evening just after sunset prayers, when a car bomb exploded at the hotel’s doorstep. At least two more explosions followed, and then gunmen posing as police stormed the hotel, witnesses said.
Al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabab group claimed responsibility for the attack.
There is no official government statement regarding the attack.
In a separate attack in Mogadishu overnight involving mortar shells, five civilians from the same family were killed and 10 others were injured when mortar shells landed on their residences near Mogadishu airport.
No one claimed responsibility for the mortar attacks, but Somali security officials said al-Shabab had carried out similar mortar attacks on several occasions in the town.
Testimonies of survivors
During the siege, Somali troops managed to rescue many civilians trapped in hotel rooms.
Survivors who spoke to VOA Somali told harrowing stories of hiding under tables, jumping from windows as armed assailants continued to fire indiscriminately at those in and around the hotel.
“It was a beautiful Friday, which is like the weekend for Somalis…the lovely conversations and happy faces of hotel guests immediately turned to explosions, gunshots, blood and shocking sensation. “I ran into a room next to the hotel reception, with dozens of people. We spent at least 40 desperate minutes there before we had a chance to break windows and run away,” said one survivor, Abdinasir Mohamed Gedi.
Gedi said he could see people jumping from high hotel windows amid huge explosions that sent plumes of smoke into the air.
“The hotel area was covered in black smoke and flying flames. I could see people jumping out of the windows onto the buildings next to the hotel, including elderly and overweight people,” Gedi said. Some who have already been injured by the explosions must have broken their legs or even perished after jumping.”
Another survivor, Abdirahman Ahmed, was among nine other survivors. He said he and the others spent around six hours in a barber shop next to the hotel before being rescued by government soldiers in the early hours of the morning.
“It was like being locked in a dangerous corner waiting for death to come. We never thought we could survive because we could hear the militants shouting, ‘God is great. Kill everyone you see’. Ahmed said “When we were rescued, I could see a headless body apparently killed by an explosion and two other corpses lying in the street.”
Saturday’s attack is al-Shabab’s first deadly attack on a high-end target in Mogadishu since Somalia’s new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, took office in May.
The United States Embassy in Mogadishu condemned the attack in a brief statement posted on Twitter, saying the United States would continue to work with the Somali government in the fight against terrorism.
Abdulkadir Abdulle contributed to this story from Mogadishu.