MOGADISHU (AFP) - Somali forces brought an end to an hours-long gun and bomb siege on a Mogadishu hotel by Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab militants on Saturday, with the government giving a final toll of 14 dead.
The war-torn country’s ambassador to Switzerland Yusuf Bari-Bari was among those killed in the dramatic attack that began on Friday at the Maka al Mukarama hotel, used by politicians, diplomats and businessmen.
Members of Somalia’s Western-backed government were meeting at the venue at the time, located on an arterial road linking the presidential palace to the airport, a Shebab spokesman said.
Police said the last of five rebels who had barricaded themselves in on the first floor of the hotel, where security is extremely tight, were killed early on Saturday.
“Fourteen people were killed and 13 others wounded in the attack,” Somali Information Minister Mohamed Abdi Heyr Mareye told reporters at the scene.
“The terrorists attacked the hotel with a car filled with explosives and five to six rebels got into where the leaders and diplomats were,” he added.
The United States “strongly” condemned the attack and said it stood with the people of Somalia and their government.
“We will not be swayed by cowardly terrorist attacks,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said in a statement.
The Shebab rebels, who stage regular attacks in the capital as part of their fight against the country’s internationally-backed government and African Union forces supporting it, claimed responsibility for the hotel attack.
“The mujahedeen fighters are conducting an operation targeting the heads of the apostates in Mogadishu,” Shebab spokesman Abdulaziz Abu Musab told AFP on Friday, adding that the militants were able to quickly seize the hotel.
‘NO SAFE HAVEN’
Another Shebab spokesman Ali Mohamed Rage added that the Islamists would fight on until they defeated “infidels” in the Horn of Africa nation.
“The operation, which lasted almost 20 hours, resulted in the perishing of dozens of apostates and their allies,” he said.
“We reiterate again that there will be no safe haven for the crusaders and apostates in Somalia, and that our attacks on them will continue until the enemies of Allah are defeated and His law is implemented fully in Somalia,” Rage added.
Police later claimed to have the situation under control, although spokesman Kassim Ahmed Roble said Saturday that fighting had gone on all night.
He said the militants had cut off the hotel’s power supply at night to make the counter-attack by Somali soldiers, backed by members of an African Union force, more difficult.
Local residents reported heavy gunfire overnight. One of them, Mohamed Sheikh Ibrahim, said: “The Somali forces sealed off the area this morning.”
A car bombing followed by an armed raid has become a trademark tactic of the hardline Islamists.
Somalia has been unstable since the collapse of Siad Barre’s hardline regime in 1991, and the country’s new government is being supported by a 22,000-strong African Union force that includes troops from Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda.
The African force, known as Amisom, said it was undaunted by the attack.
“Our message to the perpetrators of this inhuman act is that their action will not dampen our spirit for the common good of Somalia, but will further strengthen us to work even harder to defeat the enemy of peace and development,” said a statement.
Despite losing significant territory in recent months the Shebab group, whose name means “youth” in Arabic, still manages to launch frequent attacks as part of its fight to overthrow the government.
The group has also carried out a string of revenge attacks in neighbouring countries – including the September 2013 attack on the Westgate shopping mall in the Kenyan capital Nairobi which left at least 67 dead.