At least seven people have been killed 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 on Friday, 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-Qaida-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.
“Several gunmen entered and started shooting but the security forces responded quickly and engaged in a gunfight with the terrorists inside the building,” said security official Abdiweli Mohamed.
“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,” he said.
Somali Journalists Syndicate said in a statement that two journalists based in Kismayo had been confirmed dead in the attack.
“Mohamed Omar Sahal, SBC TV correspondent based in Kismayo and Hodan Naleyeh, female TV journalist and founder of Integration TV are both among those killed,” Abdalle Ahmed Mumin, the syndicate’s secretary general, said.
It said Naleyeh had recently returned from Canada.
“The deaths of Hodan, 43 and Sahal, 35, become the first journalists killed in the country this year,” the statement said.
Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement.
“Mujahideen 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-Qaida.
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.