Militants were battling security forces on Saturday in a busy hotel in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, after storming the property the day before in an attack that has left at least five people dead.
The assault came as the country was undergoing a delicate political transition and grappling with severe drought and a growing humanitarian crisis. The militant group Al Shabab claimed responsibility, according to Somali Memo, a news website affiliated with the group.
The militants stormed the property, the upscale Hayat Hotel, on Friday evening. Through Saturday afternoon, intermittent gunfire could be heard inside the building, which is frequented by local politicians and clan elders and is in a busy commercial area about a mile from the main international airport.
Police officers cordoned off the area on Saturday morning, but dozens of people stood nearby waiting for news of loved ones who they feared were trapped inside the hotel. Videos and other images on social media showed plumes of smoke followed by gunfire coming from near the hotel and people fleeing, some with children, from nearby hotels, shops and restaurants on Friday evening.
Dr. Abdulkadir Abdirahman Adan, director of the city’s only free ambulance service, said that his team had removed five bodies and taken 10 wounded people to hospitals.
Somalia’s internal security challenges have been mounting as the country faces a record fourth consecutive failed rainy season, along with rising fuel and food prices stemming from the war in Ukraine. At least seven million people out of a population of about 16 million have been affected by the severe drought as of July, with 918,000 of them displaced from their homes, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Al Shabab have wreaked havoc in Somalia for years, pledging to establish an Islamic state across the Horn of Africa nation. The group has also carried out deadly attacks in other countries in East Africa, including killing American military contractors working at a Kenyan military base in January 2020.
Al Shabab have been growing richer and stronger over the past few years, collecting taxes from businesses, making investments in real estate, deciding legal cases and carrying out increasing numbers of attacks against both civilians and Somali and peacekeeping forces.
In July, the group crossed into Ethiopia and clashed with security forces there — a move, observers say, that showcased how they were capitalizing on the internal challenges and civil war in that country to widen their operational reach.
The storming of the hotel in Mogadishu was the first major attack in the capital since Hassan Sheikh Mohamud was elected president in May after a prolonged and tense election season that had been delayed for almost two years. Mr. Mohamud has vowed to confront Al Shabab, promising to undermine the group militarily, ideologically and financially. But his government has been off to a slow start, with a new cabinet announced only this month.
In recent weeks, the United States Africa Command has increased its activities against Al Shabab, carrying out several airstrikes, including one this past week that the force said had killed 13 members of the group.
Hussein Mohamed contributed reporting from Mogadishu, Somalia.