At least eight civilians were confirmed dead in an attack by Islamist militants on a hotel in the Somali capital Mogadishu, an official said on Saturday, as security forces continued to battle gunmen hiding inside.

Fighters from the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Shabaab group stormed the popular Hayat hotel on Friday night amid a hail of gunfire and bomb blasts. Sporadic gunshots and loud explosions were still heard early Saturday morning, many hours after the assault began. It is the biggest attack in Mogadishu since Somalia’s new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, was elected in May after many months of political instability.

The jihadist group, which has been waging a deadly insurgency against Somalia’s fragile central government for some 15 years, has claimed responsibility.

“The security forces continued to neutralize the terrorists who were cordoned off inside a room in the hotel building; most people were rescued, but at least eight civilians have been confirmed dead so far,” security commander Mohamed Abdikadir told AFP.

“Security forces rescued dozens of civilians, including children, who were safely trapped in the building,” it added. Dozens of people have been gathering outside the hotel to discover the fate of their loved ones trapped inside the hotel.

“We have been searching for a relative of mine who was trapped inside the hotel, confirmed dead along with six other people, two of whom I know,” said witness Muudey Ali.

Witnesses reported at least two large explosions when the gunmen stormed the hotel, a popular hangout for government officials and ordinary Somalis. Police spokesman Abdifatah Adan Hassan told reporters Friday night that the initial explosion was caused by a suicide bomber who attacked the hotel with several other gunmen.

Witnesses said a second explosion occurred just minutes later, causing casualties among rescuers and members of the security forces and civilians who rushed to the scene after the first explosion.

‘Random shots’

The activists claimed responsibility for the attack in a brief statement on a pro-Shabaab website.

“A group of Al-Shabaab attackers forcibly entered the Hayat Hotel in Mogadishu, the fighters are shooting randomly inside the hotel,” the group said.

Earlier this week, the United States announced that its forces had killed 13 Al-Shabaab fighters in an airstrike in the south-central part of the country as Islamist militants attacked Somali forces. The United States has carried out several airstrikes against the militants in recent weeks.

In May, President Joe Biden ordered the restoration of a US troop presence in Somalia to help local authorities combat al-Shabaab, reversing his predecessor Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw most US forces. In recent weeks, Al-Shabaab fighters have also launched attacks along the Somalia-Ethiopia border, raising concerns about a possible new strategy by the jihadists.

Somalia’s new president, Mohamud, said last month that ending al-Shabaab’s insurgency required more than a military approach, but that his government would negotiate with the group only when the time was right. Al-Shabaab fighters were driven from the capital in 2011 by an African Union force, but the group still controls swathes of the countryside.

It continues to launch deadly attacks on civilian and military targets, with popular hotels and restaurants hitting frequently. Earlier this month, the new Prime Minister Hamza Abdi Barre announced the appointment of the group’s former deputy leader and spokesman, Muktar Robow, as minister of religion.

Robow, 53, publicly defected from Al-Shabaab in August 2017, with the US government at one point offering a $5 million reward for his capture.

The Horn of Africa nation has been in chaos since the fall of President Siad Barre’s military regime in 1991. His overthrow was followed by civil war and the rise of Al-Shabaab.

The deadliest attack in Somalia occurred in October 2017 when a truck packed with explosives blew up in a bustling commercial district in Mogadishu, killing 512 people.

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