Heavy gunfire rang out across central Mogadishu as Somali troops battled to dislodge Islamist insurgents holed up next to a hotel they bombed the previous evening and 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. At least two soldiers were carried away from the hotel.
The attack – the latest in a series of high-profile assaults in East Africa by al Shabaab – came after US forces in Somalia stepped up air strikes against the Islamist group.
“The militants are still fighting from inside a house adjacent to the hotel. They are fighting back with grenades and Kalashnikovs,” police officer Major Musa Ali told Reuters.
He said 29 people, mostly civilians, died in the attack and its aftermath and 80 were wounded. Many civilians were rescued and 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, used by government officials and on a street lined with hotels, shops and restaurants.
“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 carries out deadly attacks in neighbouring countries contributing to the African Union force, including on a hotel and office complex in Kenya in January that killed 21 people.
Under President Donald Trump, Washington stepped up attacks against the group and US Africa Command announced six air strikes it says killed 52 militants since February 23.
In Mogadishu, a Reuters photographer saw frantic residents searching for missing relatives through the night, making countless phone calls to find out if family members had been seen.
“I have been running to and from the blast scene to hospitals in search of my husband and brother. I have just seen them in hospital, they are in a critical condition. My husband lost his stomach and my brother suffered severe wounds to both arms,” Halima Omar, a mother of three, told Reuters.
In northern Somalia, a splinter group of former al Shabaab fighters who pledged allegiance to Islamic State is also battling the insurgency.
At least 25 people have been killed in fighting 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.