Heavy gunfire rang out across central Mogadishu on Friday as Somali special forces battled to dislodge insurgents holed up next to a hotel they bombed the previous evening, and as the death toll stemming from that attack neared 30.
Islamist al Shabaab fighters set off a bomb outside the Hotel Maka Al-Mukarama on Thursday night before retreating to an adjacent building, from where they fired on soldiers who tried to enter. Another bomb exploded later about 1 kilometre away.
Rescuers said the number of dead from the first explosion, which destroyed several buildings, could well rise.
The attack comes days after US forces in Somalia stepped up air strikes against the group, which is fighting to dislodge a Western-backed government protected by peacekeepers.
"The militants are still fighting from inside a civilian house adjacent to the hotel," police officer Major Musa Ali told Reuters on Friday morning. "... (They) are fighting back with grenades and Kalashnikov (rifles)."
He said 29 people, mostly civilians, had died in the attack and its aftermath, and 80 had been wounded.
Authorities deployed a contingent of US-trained Somali troops known as the Alpha Group to try to flush out the militants on Friday, just after two wounded soldiers were carried away from the hotel.
The wounded have been taken to various medical facilities in Mogadishu.
The National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ) secretary general Mohamed Ibrahim Moalimu was among those who narrowly escaped the attack.
“I was sitting with my friend Hassan Mohamed Dahir when we heard some salvos. But, as we asked each other about the intermittent fire, we experienced a blast that sounded like an earthquake,” said Moalimu.
“I cannot describe what has happened but I can only recall crawling within the debris and dust from the crumbling walls. On my way out, I have seen about 15 dead bodies,” he added, showing a relatively a small wound on his arm.
Al Shabaab’s military spokesman said they still controlled the hotel.
“The government tried three times to enter the building but we repulsed them. We still control the hotel,” said Abdiasis Abu Musab, Al Shabaab’s military spokesman.
The main street of Maka Al Mukaram where the blast occurred was closed on Friday.
The area, dotted by hotels, cafeterias and supermarkets, is frequented by influential people including expatriates and government officials.
Reuters witnesses 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 who were selling a shop at the place where the blast took place. I have just seen them in hospital, they are in critical conditions.
“My husband lost his stomach and my brother suffered severe wounds to both arms,” Halima Omar, a mother of three children told Reuters.
Somalia has been convulsed by lawlessness and violence since 1991. Islamist group Al Shabaab is fighting to dislodge a Western-backed government protected by African Union-mandated peacekeepers.
The government is yet to issue a statement.