MOGADISHU (AFP) - Somalia's Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab insurgents killed at least 25 people Friday in an attack on a popular hotel in the capital Mogadishu where government ministers and officials were holding Friday prayers.
Twin explosions followed by heavy gunfire were heard from the upmarket Central Hotel, close to the presidential palace, with the Islamist gunmen reportedly blasting their way into the fortified building before storming the complex.
The attack is one of the worst in recent years.
An official at the presidential palace, known as Villa Somalia, said that at least 25 people were killed and the severity of injuries among the wounded meant the death toll was expected to rise.
Government sources said that the deputy mayor of Mogadishu and a member of parliament was killed, while the deputy prime minister and minister of transport were among the injured.
The hotel attack began with two explosions caused by a car bomb and a suicide bomber followed by gunmen who charged the building, with heavy gunfire heards as security forces took back control.
"The building was badly hit, the explosion was very big," said police officer Abulrahman Ali.
"There were very many wounded people too, many of them seriously."
Thick clouds of black smoke were seen pouring from the hotel as the injured were rushed to hospital.
"There were people covered in blood, I counted 10 dead bodies but that was only in one area," said Ali Hussein, who was close to the hotel when the attack took place.
Shebab militants claimed responsibility for the attack.
"Our fighters attacked the Central Hotel," Shebab spokesman Abdulaziz Abu Musab told AFP. "The aim is to kill the apostate officials." Shebab rebels have staged a string of assaults in their fight to overthrow the country's internationally-backed government. They have targeted hotels, the international airport, Villa Somalia, a United Nations compound and restaurants.
The extremists say they are targeting government officials for permitting the deployment of foreign African Union troops on Somali soil.
Shebab attacks in Somalia have targeted key government and security sites in a bid to discredit claims by the authorities and AU troops that they are winning the war.
Friday's attack comes a month after a Shebab suicide bomber exploded a car at the nearby SYL hotel, the day before a planned visit by Turkey's president.
United Nations envoy to Somalia Nick Kay condemned the "brutal terrorist attack" on the hotel.
"My heart goes out to those who have suffered. We stand firm with the Somalia people," he said in a statement.
Britain's ambassador to Somalia Neil Wigan also condemned the attack but said it "will not derail Somalia's determination to defeat Al-Shebab's terrorism."
Somalia is due to vote on a new constitution ahead of elections in 2016, but security remains a major problem.