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Four dead as hotel siege in Somali capital enters 18th hour

Map of Somalia. ©AFP

Mogadishu (AFP) - Somali forces closed in on Monday on Al-Shabaab militants laying siege to a popular hotel in the capital, Mogadishu, where at least four people have been killed in an ongoing attack.

The crackle of gunfire could still be heard coming from the besieged Villa Rose 18 hours after the Islamists stormed the hotel in central Mogadishu in a hail of bullets and explosions.

Mohamed Dahir, an official from the national security agency, told AFP that government forces had taken control of the hotel and pinned the insurgents down in a top-floor room.

"The terrorist gunmen are trapped inside a room in the hotel and the security forces are close to ending the siege very soon," he told AFP.

"So far we have confirmed the death of four people", he said, adding that government officials were among those wounded. 

The Villa Rose is frequented by members of parliament and located in a secure central part of the capital just a few blocks from the office of Somalia's President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud.

Al-Shabaab, a militant group affiliated to Al-Qaeda that has been trying to overthrow Somalia's central government for 15 years, claimed responsibility for the attack.

Police said the gunmen rushed into the hotel in Bondhere district at around 8:00 pm (1700 GMT) on Sunday and an operation was under way to "eliminate" them.

Retaliatory attacks

Witnesses near the scene described still hearing loud explosions and gunfire on Monday morning.

"I saw several military vehicles with special forces heading towards the hotel, and a few minutes later there was heavy gunfire and explosions," said witness Mahad Yare.

In a statement late on Sunday, the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS), a 20,000-strong military force drawn from across the continent, praised the "swift" security response to the attack.

The Villa Rose website describes the hotel as the "most secure lodging arrangement in Mogadishu" with metal detectors and a high perimeter wall. 

Al-Shabaab has intensified attacks against civilian and military targets as Somalia's recently elected government has pursued a policy of "all-out war" against the Islamists.

The security forces, backed by local militias, ATMIS and US air strikes, have driven Al-Shabaab from central parts of Somalia in recent months, but the offensive has drawn retribution. 

On October 29, two cars packed with explosives blew up minutes apart in Mogadishu followed by gunfire, killing at least 121 people and wounding 333 others.

It was the deadliest attack in the fragile Horn of Africa nation in five years.

Closely guarded zone

At least 21 people were killed in a siege of a Mogadishu hotel in August that lasted 30 hours before security forces were able to overpower the militants inside.

The latest hotel siege has raised questions as to how the militants managed to reach the closely guarded heart of Mogadishu's administrative district undetected. 

Armed checkpoints block roads into the area, which also hosts a detention facility for high-value terror suspects overseen by the National Intelligence and Security Agency.

Somalia's environment minister, Adam Aw Hirsi, who lives in the Villa Rose, said the attack was not a demonstration of an "emboldened" Al-Shabaab.

"To the contrary, the desperate move shows that the terror kingpins running for dear life are throwing their last kicks.We'll not let up the war," he posted on Twitter.

The United Nations said earlier this month that at least 613 civilians had been killed and 948 wounded in violence this year in Somalia, mostly caused by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) attributed to Al-Shabaab. 

The figures were the highest since 2017 and a rise of more than 30 percent from last year.

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