MOGADISHU: Somalia's security forces exchanged gunfire with militants holed up in a hotel in Mogadishu on Monday after Al-Shabaab stormed the popular venue near the presidential palace and occupied it overnight.
Sporadic gunfire and explosions could still be heard after dawn around the Villa Rose, a hotel in a secure central part of Mogadishu frequented by lawmakers and public officials.
Police said late Sunday that government forces were seeking to "eliminate" a number of armed militants inside the Villa Rose after attacking the hotel in a hail of bullets and explosions.
National police spokesman Sadik Dudishe said many civilians and officials had been rescued, but did not offer further details.
Witnesses described two massive explosions followed by gunfire that sent people fleeing the scene in Bondhere district. The hotel is just a few blocks from the office of Somalia's President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud.
Al-Shabaab, a militant group affiliated with Al-Qaeda that has been trying to overthrow Somalia's central government for 15 years, claimed responsibility for the attack.
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 in a statement late Sunday.
On its website the Villa Rose describes the hotel as the "most secure lodging arrangement in Mogadishu" with metal detectors and a high perimeter wall.
- Retaliatory attacks -
Al-Shabaab has intensified attacks against civilian and military targets as Somalia's newly-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 the country 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 injuring 333 others.
It was the deadliest attack in the fragile Horn of Africa nation in five years.
At least 21 people were killed in a siege on a Mogadishu hotel in August that lasted 30 hours before security forces could take control from the militants inside.
The UN said earlier this month that at least 613 civilians had been killed and 948 injured 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 more-than 30-percent rise from last year.