MOGADISHU – Heavy gunfire rang out across central Mogadishu on Friday as Somali troops battled to dislodge Islamist insurgents holed up next to a hotel they bombed the previous evening, and as the death toll stemming from that attack neared 30.
Al Shabaab fighters set off two bombs outside the Hotel Maka Al-Mukarama before retreating to an adjacent building, from where they fired on soldiers who tried to enter. At least two soldiers were carried away from the hotel on Friday morning.
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The attack – the latest in a series of high-profile assaults in East Africa by al Shabaab – came after U.S. forces in Somalia stepped up air strikes against the Islamist group.
“The militants are still fighting from inside a civilian house adjacent to the hotel… (They) are fighting back with grenades and Kalashnikov (rifles),” police officer Major Musa Ali told Reuters.
He said 29 people, mostly civilians, had died in the attack and its aftermath, and 80 had been wounded. Many civilians had been rescued but the death toll could rise, he added.
Al Shabaab’s military spokesman said the group was still in control of the Hotel Maka Al-Mukarama, which is used by government officials and 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.
Somalia has been convulsed by lawlessness and violence since 1991, and al Shabaab is fighting to dislodge a Western-backed government protected by African Union-mandated peacekeepers.
The group has also carried out deadly attacks in neighboring countries contributing to the African Union force, 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 U.S. Africa Command announced six air strikes it says have killed 52 militants since Feb. 23.
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In Mogadishu, a Reuters photographer saw frantic residents in the city searching for missing relatives through the night, making countless phone calls to find out if anyone had seen their family members.
“I have been running to and fro from blast scene to hospitals since yesterday evening in search of my husband and brother …I have just seen them in hospital, they are in critical condition. My husband lost his stomach and my brother suffered severe wounds to both arms,” Halima Omar, a mother of three children, told Reuters.
In northern Somalia, a splinter group of former al Shabaab fighters who have pledged allegiance to Islamic State is also battling the insurgency.
At least 25 people have been killed in the fighting between the two sides this week when al Shabaab captured three villages from the faction aligned to Islamic State, a military official from the semi-autonomous region of Puntland told Reuters.