A gun battle raged in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, into Friday morning as soldiers battled to dislodge Islamist militants holed up in a building next to a hotel they had bombed the previous evening. At least 29 people have been killed.
The militants, from the Shabab extremist group, set off two blasts outside the Hotel Makkah al-Mukarammah on a busy street lined with shops and restaurants on Thursday, before retreating to an adjacent building from where they fired on soldiers who tried to enter.
At least two wounded soldiers were carried away from the hotel on Friday morning.
The attack was the latest in a series of high-profile assaults in East Africa by the Shabab, and it came after American forces in Somalia stepped up airstrikes against the Islamist group.
The militants were “fighting back with grenades” and Kalashnikov rifles, a police officer, Maj. Musa Ali, told Reuters. “So far we know 29 people, mostly civilians died, and 80 others injured,” he said, adding that many civilians had been rescued but that the death toll could rise.
Another police officer, Maj. Mohamed Hussein, said: “It was very difficult for the security forces to enter the building last night because it is dark and electricity was cut by the blast. Now it is daybreak, and we hope the operation will be concluded in the following hours.”
A spokesman for the Shabab, Abdiasis Abu Musa, said the Islamist group was holding out. “The government tried three times to enter the building, but we repulsed them,” he said.
Many victims of Thursday’s attack suffered horrific wounds, and hospitals were said to be struggling to cope with the casualties, The Associated Press said. Some of the wounded had lost limbs, Sadiya Yusuf, a nurse at Daru al-Shifa hospital, told The A.P.
The hotel is frequently patronized by government officials, and militants from the Shabab have targeted it several times in past attacks that have killed scores of people.
Somalia has been convulsed by lawlessness and violence since 1991. The Shabab are fighting to dislodge a Western-backed government protected by African Union-mandated peacekeepers. The group wants to impose Shariah law in the country.
The Shabab have also carried out deadly attacks in neighboring countries, including one on a hotel and office complex in Kenya in January that killed 21 people.
The main street in Mogadishu where the blast occurred was closed on Friday. Witnesses said they had seen frantic residents searching for missing relatives through the night.
“I have been running to and fro from blast scene to hospitals since yesterday evening in search of my husband and brother who were selling a shop at the place where the blast took place,” said Halima Omar, a mother of three.
“I have just seen them in hospital; they are in critical conditions,” she added. “My husband lost his stomach and my brother suffered severe wounds to both arms.”
In 2015, militants stormed the popular Sahafi Hotel in the heart of Mogadishu, blowing up the front gate with a car bomb, shooting guests and hotel workers, and then battling with security forces from the hotel’s rooftop for several hours. At least 14 people were killed in the attack.
In 2016, at least 14 civilians were killed and dozens were wounded after Islamist militants struck a popular beachside restaurant in Somalia’s capital.
The United States has drastically increased airstrikes against the Shabab since Donald J. Trump became president. The American military command for Africa reported carrying out 50 strikes in Somalia in 2018.
This year, American strikes targeting Shabab fighters have come at an even faster pace. The military command in Africa reported 23 as of Tuesday, including one in central Somalia that killed 20 militants, and another the day before that killed 35.