Somali forces shot dead three militants holed up in a central Mogadishu building on Friday, bringing a day-long battle finally to an end. Gunfire and bombs killed dozens. Somali police say scores are injured, and fear the death toll will rise.
Al Shabaab fighters, seeking to overthrow the Western-backed government, launched the assault on Thursday night with a suicide car bomb outside a hotel. It ignited a huge blaze that left people wounded in the rubble.
The militants then fled to a nearby building and open-fired on security forces sent to flush them out.
“The operation is over and the building is now controlled by the security forces. The three militants were shot dead, their bodies are inside the building,” police officer Captain Osman Mohamed told Reuters.
It was the longest that the militants had held a position in Mogadishu since Somali troops backed by African Union peacekeepers forced them out of the city in 2011.
“Our special operation in Mogadishu successfully concluded after almost 24 hours. It targeted a hotel frequented by the members of the apostate government. Dozens of them eliminated, more injured,” Abdiasis Abu Musab, al Shabaab’s military operation spokesperson, told Reuters.
He gave a different figure to police, saying: “Four of our Mujahideen were martyred; others managed to come back after the operation.”
The attack on the hotel came the same day that US forces said they carried out an air strike that killed 26 militants in the Hiran area, north of the capital, part of an escalation of Washington’s fight against the al Qaeda-linked group.
Somalia’s government had earlier said the gunmen took hostages, but there were no immediate details on their fate.
“There are no civilian casualties in this building, but there may be dead civilians under the collapsed Hilco Restaurant which is also nearby,” Captain Mohamed said.
DEATH TOLL MAY RISE
Health officials said it was too early to estimate the full impact of the attack. “The death toll may rise and rise,” said Abdikadir Admen, the director of the privately-run Amain ambulance service.
Al Shabaab said it had repulsed three government raids on the building. Soldiers manned roadblocks around the site during the fighting and fired into the air to keep back relatives who shouted out the names of missing loved ones.
“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 Hallam Omar told Reuters.
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 gatekeeper force inside Somalia, including one on a hotel and office complex in Kenya in January that killed 21 people.
Under US President Donald Trump, Washington has stepped up attacks against the group and US Africa Command has announced six air strikes in recent days that it said killed a total of 83 militants since 23 February.