At least a dozen people are reported to have been killed in an attack by Islamist militants al-Shabaab on a hotel in the centre of the Somali capital, Mogadishu.
The attackers stormed the Hayat Hotel, a popular site for local politicians, on Friday evening, detonating bombs before opening fire in the first major attack by the al-Qaeda-linked Islamist group since a new president took office this year.
A Somali intelligence officer told Reuters on Saturday that at least 12 people had been killed. Aamin Ambulance, an independent emergency organisation based in Mogadishu, had said earlier that it had transported 10 injured patients and two dead bodies.
Al-Shabaab, which has long terrorised the country and wants to overthrow the government, has claimed responsibility, according the Site Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadist group statements.
This is the first major assault by al-Shabaab since former leader Hassan Sheikh Mohamud returned to office as president in early June.
Harun Maruf, author of Inside al-Shabaab, said from Mogadishu on Saturday morning that, after 18 hours, “government security forces are fighting their way hard to end the siege in a tough battle”. He said the death toll could be higher.
Unverified videos posted on social media show an explosion blasting one side of the hotel’s rooftop and black smoke billowing from the site. Aamin Ambulance’s founder, Abdulkadir Adan, tweeted late on Friday from the capital that “gunfire can be heard in the vicinity”.
As well as frequent deadly attacks in Somalia, al-Shabaab carried out the 2019 attack on the Dusit complex in Nairobi in which 22 civilians were killed. The group attacked a US base in northern Kenya in 2020, killing three US servicemen.
The US Africa Command estimates that the group has between 5,000 and 10,000 fighters across the country of 15mn and controls large swaths of southern and central Somalia.
In May, US president Joe Biden approved the establishment of a small but “persistent” military presence in Somalia, reversing the Trump administration’s withdrawal of troops from the country in the Horn of Africa.
As the African Union Mission in Somalia is being wound down, Biden’s decision stemmed from growing concern about the threat posed by al-Shabaab, with one senior US official calling it “al-Qaeda’s largest global affiliate”.
Last weekend, a US air strike killed 13 militants of al-Shabaab, “that were actively attacking Somali National Army forces in a remote location near Teedaan”, in central Somalia, the US Africa Command said in a statement.