Islamist rebels kill at least seven in attack on Somali hotel

MOGADISHU (REUTERS) - Islamist militants blasted their way into a popular hotel in the Somali capital Mogadishu on Friday, killing at least seven people and trapping government officials inside, police and witnesses said.

Somali special forces broke through the compound wall and exchanged gunfire with fighters holed up in the main building of the Maka Al Mukaram hotel, said police.

Al Qaeda-linked group al Shabaab, which has also launched gun and bomb attacks in neighbouring Kenya and other countries, said its followers were responsible.

"The hotel is now fully under the control of the militants," Major Ismail Olow, a Mogadishu police officer at the scene, told Reuters.

"Al Shabaab fighters are on the top of the building and inside the hotel. It is not easy for us to go in."

The remains of two destroyed cars could be seen at the gates of the hotel which was surrounded by police.

Officers said a unit of elite US-trained special forces troops known as "Gaashaan" (Shield) had breached the hotel compound but were still trying to enter the building.

"The militants fired as government forces tried to enter the hotel rooms. They are sporadically exchanging gunfire," Captain Ali Hussein, a police officer, told Reuters.

Al Shabaab was pushed out of the capital by African peacekeeping forces in 2011, but has kept up guerilla-style attacks, looking to overthrow the government and impose its strict version of Sharia, or Islamic law, on the country.

An offensive launched last year by African Union forces along with the Somali army has driven the group out of its strongholds in central and southern Somalia, while a series of US drone strikes have killed some of its top leaders.

Al Shabaab said they were still fighting inside the hotel.

"There is much casualty but we shall give details later," the group's military spokesman Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab told Reuters.

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