At least 19 people were killed when six militants launched a suicide car bombing and armed assault on a busy hotel and adjacent restaurant in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu, a police officer said on Thursday.
“The operation is over now and the gunmen were killed by the security forces,” said Mohamed Ahmed Arab, spokesman for Somalia’s security ministry.
The attack began at around 8pm (1700GMT) on Wednesday evening when a car driven by a suicide bomber rammed into the Posh Hotel in south Mogadishu before gunmen rushed into Pizza House, an adjacent restaurant, and took 20 people hostage. Posh Hotel is the only venue with a discotheque in the capital.
District police chief Abdi Bashir told Reuters Somali security forces took back control of the restaurant at midnight after the gunmen had held hostages inside for several hours. Five of the gunmen were killed, Bashir said.
“We are in control of the hotel but it was mostly destroyed by the suicide bomber,” he told Reuters by phone.
Survivors and witnesses described chaos after the bomb went off, saying there were bodies lying at the scene on Thursday morning as ambulances came to take them away.
Ahmed Mohamud Adow, the spokesman for the country’s interior ministry, said the dead included a Syrian national who worked at the restaurant. He did not identify the dead Syrian who local residents said worked as a chef at the Pizza House.
Another 27 civilians were taken to hospital with various injuries, ambulance services said. Witnesses said the attack was launched after the Iftar dinner for customers who are fasting for Ramadan. Most of them were still inside relaxing.
The wreckage of three-wheeled scooters caught up in the blast at the hotel, which also housed a massage parlor, lay overturned around the scene.
Shabaab, the militant group, claimed responsibility for the attack. The group claimed on Thursday morning it killed more than 20 people including soldiers and government workers.
Shabaab usually provides a higher death toll from its attacks than the government’s figures.
The austere Shabaab group, which wants to impose a Taliban-style rule on Somalia, has been fighting for the last decade to overthrow successive internationally-backed governments in Mogadishu and has also launched attacks in Kenya and Uganda, both contributors to a 22,000-strong African Union force in the country.
Although pushed out of the capital in 2011 the group still controls parts of the countryside, where a drought threatens to tip into famine this year.
The Horn of Africa country has been racked by armed conflict since 1991, when clan-based warlords overthrew dictator Siad Barre and then turned on each other.
President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, who was elected into office earlier this year, promised to defeat Shabaab.