Somali special forces battle militants holding hostages

By Abdi Sheikh and Feisal Omar

MOGADISHU, March 3 (Reuters) – Heavy gunfire rang out across central Mogadishu on Friday as Somali special forces battled to dislodge insurgents who bombed a hotel, killing at least 29 people, then holed up with hostages in a neighbouring building.

Islamist al Shabaab fighters set off an explosive outside the Hotel Maka Al-Mukarama late on Thursday, leaving rescuers to dig through the rubble. Another bomb exploded a short time later about 1 km (0.6 miles) away.

“The scene is fearful … The death toll may rise and rise,” said Abdikadir Adem, the director of the privately-run Aamin ambulance service.

The militants fled to the adjacent building and fired on soldiers and contingent of U.S.-trained Somali troops known as the Alpha Group who were deployed on Friday to flush them out.

“The security forces are engaged in rescuing civilians who are being used as shield by the terrorists,” interior minister Dahir Mohamud Gelle told the state-run news agency on Friday afternoon.

The attack on a hotel popular with government officials came days after U.S. forces in Somalia stepped up air strikes against the al Qaeda-linked group, which is fighting to dislodge a Western-backed government protected by African Union peacekeepers.

Soldiers manned roadblocks around the scene and fired into the air to keep back crowds of relatives who shouted out the names of missing loved ones.

“I have been running to and fro from the blast scene to hospitals since yesterday (Thursday) evening in search of my husband and brother … I have just seen them in hospital. They are in a critical condition,” mother-of-three Halima Omar told Reuters.

LAWLESSNESS

Al Shabaab’s military spokesman said on Friday it was still in control of the Hotel Maka Al-Mukarama, located on a street lined with other hotels, shops and restaurants.

“The government tried three times to enter the building but we repulsed them,” said Abdiasis Abu Musab.

Most roads in the city were shut to traffic, including those leading to hospitals.

Somalia has been convulsed by lawlessness and violence since 1991, and a further layer of chaos was added in 2015 with the formation in the north of a splinter group of former al Shabaab insurgents who pledged allegiance to Islamic State.

At least 25 people have been killed this week in clashes between the two militant groups, a military official from the semi-autonomous region of Puntland told Reuters.

Al Shabaab has also carried out attacks in neighbouring countries contributing to the African Union peacekeeper force inside Somalia, including one on a hotel and office complex in Kenya in January that killed 21 people.

Under U.S. President Donald Trump, Washington has stepped up attacks against the group, and U.S. Africa Command announced six air strikes that it said had killed 52 militants since Feb. 23.

(writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by John Stonestreet and Andrew Heavens)