The death toll from a devastating 30-hour siege by Al-Shabaab jihadists at a hotel in Somalia's capital Mogadishu has climbed to 21, Health Minister Ali Haji Adan said Sunday, as anxious citizens awaited news.
Emergency workers have been trying to clear the debris of a gun and bomb attack by the Al-Qaeda-linked group on the popular Hayat hotel which left parts of the building in ruins, with many feared trapped inside the venue.
"The ministry of health has so far confirmed the deaths of 21 people and 117 people wounded" in the assault that began on Friday evening and lasted over a day, Adan said.
On Sunday morning, the area surrounding the hotel was quiet and the roads blocked by a heavy security presence as emergency workers and bomb disposal experts sought to clear the premises of any explosives and remove rubble.
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The hotel building sustained heavy damage during the gunfight between Somali forces and the insurgent.
It caused some parts of it to collapse and leaving many people frantically searching for their loved ones who were inside when the attack began.
Police commissioner Abdi Hassan Mohamed Hijar told reporters on Sunday that "106 people including children and women" were rescued by security forces during the siege which ended around midnight.
As bullets and flames ripped through the hotel, security forces searched the property to bring civilians to safety, including three young children who hid inside a toilet.
"The casualties mostly happened in the early hours of the attack, after that security forces spent time rescuing people individually and room by room," Hijar said.
The attack was the biggest in Mogadishu since Somalia's new President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud took office in June, and underscored the challenge of trying to crush the 15-year insurrection by the Islamist group.
Dozens of people gathered near the road leading up to the hotel on Sunday morning, desperate for news of their family members as security forces guarded the area, not letting anyone through.
Businessman Muktar Adan, whose brother was inside the hotel when the attack started, told AFP he was waiting for permission to enter the premises and look for his sibling.
"My brother was inside the hotel the last time we heard from him, but his phone is switched off now and we don't know what to expect," he said.
Said Nurow, who heard the attack unfold, said he was very worried about his friend who was a guest at the property.
"I hope... (he) is alive, he stayed in the hotel according to the last information we got from his sister," he told AFP, describing the mood as "tense".
The hotel was a favoured meeting spot for government officials and scores of people were inside when gunmen stormed the property.
Somalia's allies, including the United States, Britain and Turkey, as well as the UN, have strongly condemned the attack. So did ATMIS, the African Union force tasked with helping Somali forces take over primary responsibility for security by the end of 2024.
Earlier this month, Washington announced its forces had killed 13 Al-Shabaab operatives in an air strike, the latest since President Joe Biden ordered the re-establishment of a US troop presence in Somalia, reversing a decision by his predecessor Donald Trump.
Mohamud said last month that ending the jihadist insurrection required more than a military approach, but that his government would negotiate with the group only when the time was right.
According to police, the attack began with a blast caused by a suicide bomber who forced his way into the hotel along with gunmen.
Minutes later, a second explosion struck as rescuers, security forces and civilians rushed to help the injured, witnesses said.
Al-Shabaab spokesman Abdiaziz Abu-Musab told the group's Andalus radio earlier Saturday that its forces had "inflicted heavy casualties".
Al-Shabaab has carried out several attacks in Somalia since Mohamud took office, and last month launched strikes on the Ethiopian border.
The militants were driven out of Mogadishu in 2011, but still control swathes of countryside and retain the ability to launch deadly strikes, often targeting hotels and restaurants.
The deadliest attack occurred in October 2017 when a truck packed with explosives blew up in Mogadishu, killing 512 people.