MOGADISHU: Three people were killed in an hours-long siege claimed by Al Shabaab fighters at a popular hotel near the presidential palace in the Somali capital Mogadishu on Thursday.

Armed fighters stormed the SYL hotel in a hail of bullets before security forces announced they had brought the situation under control after more than 13 hours.

It broke a relative lull in violence by the Al Qaeda-linked group, demonstrating its continued ability to strike despite a major military offensive against them.

“Three people died in the attack and 27 others, including nine soldiers, were wounded,” a police spokesman told a press conference, adding that the injury toll included three lawmakers.

Security forces also killed five assailants in a gun battle, he added.

Escaped by scaling a wall

“Several gunmen forced their way into the building after destroying the perimeter wall with a heavy explosion,” Ahmed Dahir, a security official, said.

Witnesses described hearing the assailants shoot indiscriminately.

“I don’t know about the casualties, but there were many people inside when the attack started,” said Hassan Nur, who escaped by scaling a wall.

Other witnesses said police arrived at the hotel within minutes of the attack, triggering a fierce gun battle.

The United States said it condemned the attack “in the strongest terms”.

“The United States has a shared interest with Somalia to advance peace and prosperity, and we remain committed to supporting Somali efforts to defeat Al Shabaab,” the US embassy in Mogadishu said in a statement.

The government has not commented publicly, but images on state television showed President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud visiting the injured in hospital.

‘Active and resilient’

The SYL hotel was last hit by Al Shabaab in 2019 when five people were killed.

It is close to the Villa Somalia government complex, a high-security area that includes the presidential palace, the prime minister’s office and ministry buildings.

“It is a highly significant attack that shatters a sense of calm in Mogadishu that has developed in recent months following some security reforms,” said Omar Mahmood, an analyst at the International Crisis Group (ICG), noting that in the past Al Shabaab assaults had increased during Ramazan.

“It also serves as a signal from Al Shabaab that despite much heralded efforts by this government to weaken them, the group remains active and resilient, and even able to hit the government close to home.”

The Al Shabaab has been waging war against the federal government for more than 16 years and hase often targeted hotels, which host high-ranking Somali and foreign officials.

Although Al Shabaab was driven out of the capital by an African Union force in 2011, it retains a strong presence in rural Somalia and has carried out numerous attacks against political, security and civilian targets.

The beleaguered central government launched a major offensive against the outfit in Aug 2022, joining forces with local clan militias.

The army and militias, known as “macawisley”, have retaken swathes of territory in central Somalia in an operation backed by the AU mission, known as ATMIS, and US air strikes.

But the offensive has suffered setbacks, with Al Shabaab earlier this week claiming it had taken multiple locations in the centre of the country.

‘Unwavering resolve’

President Mohamud met defence officials on Thursday to establish a plan to reclaim the lost territory, national news agency SONNA reported.

“The president commended the valiant efforts of Somali forces and emphasised the government’s unwavering resolve to eradicate terrorism,” it said.

In January, Al Shabaab took several people hostage after a UN helicopter carrying nine passengers made an emergency landing in its territory.

In June, six civilians were killed in a six-hour siege at a beachside hotel in Mogadishu.

And in Aug 2022, 21 people were killed and more than 100 injured in a 30-hour siege at another hotel.

In October that year, 100 people lost their lives in twin car bombings in Mogadishu, the deadliest strike since Mohamud took office in May ’22.

Thursday’s attack came days after the US slapped sanctions on 16 individuals and entities across the Horn of Africa and the Middle East that it accused of laundering money for Al Shabaab.

Published in Dawn, March 16th, 2024

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