At least seven people were killed on Friday in a suicide bomb and gun attack claimed by Al-Shabaab militants on a hotel in southern Somalia, a security official said.
Authorities said a suicide bomber rammed a vehicle loaded with explosives into the popular Medina hotel in the southern port town of Kismayo before several heavily armed gunmen forced their way inside, shooting as they went.
The attack is the latest in a long line of bombing and assaults claimed by the Al-Qaeda-linked group.
“We have confirmed the death of seven people including a former local administration minister and a lawmaker,” said Abdi Dhuhul, a security official. “The toll may increase since the attack is not over yet.”
Witnesses said among those killed were a well-known social media activist, her husband and a local journalist.
“The blast rocked the popular Medina hotel formerly known as Cascasey which is located in downtown Kismayo,” said security official Abdiweli Mohamed.
“Several gunmen entered and started shooting but the security forces responded quickly and engaged in a gunfight with the terrorists inside the building,” he added.
“The blast was very big,” said witness Hussein Muktar.
“There is chaos inside, I saw several dead bodies carried from the scene and people are fleeing from the nearby buildings,” Muktar said.
“The relatives of local journalist Mohamed Sahal confirmed his death and I’m getting that social media activist Hodan Naleyeh and her husband also died in the blast,” another witness, Ahmed Farhan, said.
The Somali journalists’ union SJS confirmed the reporters’ deaths. “It is a very sad day for Somalian journalists,” the union’s secretary-general Ahmed Mumin said in a statement.
Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement.
“Mujahidin fighters carried out a martyrdom attack on one of the hotels accommodating the apostate officials of the Jubaland administration,” the group said, referring to an autonomous southern zone in the troubled country whose main city is Kismayo.
According to several sources, most of those staying in the hotel were politicians and traders ahead of upcoming regional elections.
Shabaab fighters have fought for more than a decade to topple the Somali government.
The militant group emerged from Islamic Courts that once controlled central and southern Somalia and are variously estimated to number between 5,000 and 9,000 men.
In 2010 the Shabaab declared their allegiance to Al-Qaeda.
In 2011, they fled positions they once held in Mogadishu, and have since lost many strongholds.
But they retain control of large rural swathes of the country and continue to wage a guerrilla war against the authorities.