Mogadishu (AFP) - Somali security forces were still battling Saturday to end a bloody Mogadishu hotel siege by jihadist fighters that officials said has killed at least 13 civilians since the attack was unleashed more than 24 hours ago.
Militants from Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Shabaab stormed the Hayat Hotel in the Somali capital on Friday evening, setting off bombs and firing indiscriminately before claiming to take control of the building.
Scores of people were trapped when the assault began and although officials said dozens had been rescued, including children, it is not known how many remain inside.
Sporadic gunfire and explosions could be heard as darkness fell, with reports that police had moved into the building and that there was widespread damage throughout.
Details remain difficult to verify in the chaos and a wide security cordon has been thrown up around the hotel area, with roads blocked off.
The government has yet to make any public comment on the attack, the biggest in Mogadishu since Somalia's new President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud took office in June after months of political instability.
Al-Shabaab, which has been waging a deadly insurgency for 15 years against the fragile government in the Horn of Africa nation, has claimed responsibility.
Security commander Mohamed Abdikadir told AFP that the number of civilians confirmed to have died was 13, while police officer Ibrahim Duale said more than 10 had been killed.
"The security forces rescued dozens of civilians including children who were trapped in the building," said Abdikadir.
The director of Mogadishu's main trauma hospital, Mohamed Abdirahman Jama, said it was treating at least 40 people wounded in the hotel attack and a separate mortar strike on another area of the capital.
- Children found hiding in toilet -
One woman, Hayat Ali, said three young relatives aged between four and seven were found by security forces hiding in a hotel toilet in a state of shock but were later reunited with their family.
Another survivor told AFP he and some colleagues had performed evening prayers before taking tea in one of the hotel's open spaces when they heard the first explosions.
"I managed to run to a nearby exit gate away from the gunmen," Hussein Ali told AFP.“The gunmen started firing and I could hear the shots behind me, but thanks to God...we managed to escape.
"Those who preferred to take cover inside the building including one of my colleagues died," he added.
Somalia's allies including the United States, Britain and Turkey as well as regional grouping IGAD have strongly condemned the attack, with the US embassy saying it pledged "continued support for Somalia to hold murderers accountable & build when others destroy".
In another incident, a volley of mortar shells hit the seafront neighbourhood of Hamar Jajab, district commissioner Mucawiye Muddey told AFP.
"Among those critically wounded are a newlywed bride and her groom and a family of three children, a mother and their father," he said.
Witnesses had reported at least two powerful explosions on Friday as gunmen burst into the hotel, a popular spot for local officials and lawmakers.
Police said the initial blast was caused by a suicide bomber who forced his way into the hotel with other gunmen.
Witnesses said a second explosion occurred just minutes later, inflicting more casualties as rescuers, security forces and civilians rushed to the scene.
Al-Shabaab spokesman Abdiaziz Abu-Musab told the group's Andalus radio earlier Saturday that its forces were still in control of the building and that they had "inflicted heavy casualties".
The jihadists have carried out several attacks in Somalia since Mohamud took office and last month launched strikes on the Ethiopia border, raising concerns about a possible new strategy.
Earlier this week, the United States announced its forces had killed 13 Al-Shabaab operatives in an air strike, the latest since President Joe Biden ordered the re-establishment of a US troop presence in Somalia, reversing a decision by his predecessor Donald Trump.
Decades of chaos
Mohamud said last month that ending the jihadist insurrection required more than a military approach, but that his government would negotiate with the group only when the time was right.
Al-Shabaab was driven out of the capital in 2011 by an African Union force, but still controls swathes of countryside and continues to launch deadly strikes on political, civilian and military targets, with popular hotels and restaurants often hit.
Earlier this month, new Prime Minister Hamza Abdi Barre announced the appointment of the group's former deputy leader and spokesman, Muktar Robow, as religion minister.
Robow, 53, defected from Al-Shabaab in 2017, with the US government at one point offering a $5 million bounty for his capture.
Somalia has been mired in chaos since the fall of president Siad Barre's military regime in 1991.
His ouster was followed by a civil war and the ascendancy of Al-Shabaab.
The deadliest attack occurred in October 2017 when a truck packed with explosives blew up in a bustling commercial district of Mogadishu, killing 512 people.
As well as the insurgency, Somalia is also in the grip of a devastating drought that has driven one million people from their homes and left the country in the shadow of famine, according to the United Nations.