Somali security forces ended the al-Shabab siege of a Mogadishu restaurant early Thursday after battling the militants for almost 11 hours.
Major Abdifatah Bashir Ali, commander of police in the Hodan district of the city, told VOA Somali that special security forces launched a major operation just before 6 a.m. local time and were able to overpower the militants who were holed up in the restaurant.
At least 19 civilians were killed during the siege, officials told VOA Mogadishu reporter Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulle. A Syrian national who fled his homeland to Somalia and was working as a chef is among the dead.
A security source told VOA Somali that five special forces members also died during a fierce gun battle with the militants in the restaurant. The source said three of the security forces were killed in an explosion from a grenade thrown by the militants.
Mogadishu ambulance services said they evacuated 26 people wounded in the attack.
The attack started Wednesday evening with an explosion from a car bomb that detonated outside two restaurants, Pizza House and Posh Treats, causing massive damage.
Witnesses said the gunmen entered Posh Treats and proceeding to Pizza House where they put up a fierce resistance against the security forces who were trying to end the siege.
Ambulance worker Abduqlakadir Abdullahi Abdi said he refused to leave the site as the standoff continued into the night, deciding instead to wait outside the restaurant to evacuate the wounded.
As the sound of gunfire echoed in the background, he told VOA that he was not able to enter the building because of the intensity of the gunfire and wanted to wait outside to save lives whenever the security forces secure the building.
“I’m just 10 steps away from the building but I’m waiting to see if there are more wounded people in the building, we heard there are people with fractures inside,” he said. “We can’t go home because there is no other ambulance in service.”
The two restaurants offer food, spa, lodging, snooker and shisha as well as refreshments, and is popular with Somalis from the diaspora. Staff at the two restaurants include foreigners from Kenya, Ethiopia and Syria.
The al-Shabab militant group said it carried out the attack. On their website, the group said they targeted the restaurants “because there are women who sell their body for money.” There has been no independent confirmation of their accusation.
Witnesses, including a VOA reporter who was at the scene, said they heard a hail of bullets and explosions as the special Somali forces known as Gaashaan, or “lightning,” pushed forward to end the siege. Security forces later confirmed to VOA that they had secured the building.
Pictures taken from the scene showed the bodies of several women killed in one of the rooms. Another picture showed relatives of the victims killed in the attack weeping outside the building.
The attack was the biggest in Mogadishu during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a time when the militants often escalate their attacks and assassinations.
The attack also came just hours after the militant group released purported audio of their elusive deputy leader, Mahad Karate, who was reported to have been the target of a U.S. drone strike Sunday near the town of Sakow in the Middle Jubba region. The group did not confirm or deny whether he was in the vicinity of the drone strike.
In the audio, Karate urged the group’s fighters to escalate their attacks during “this Ramadan.” He referred to the May 31 attack by U.S. and Somali forces on the village of Dar e Salam where a navy SEAL was killed. The audio does not refer to the attack Sunday near Sakow.
Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulle in Mogadishu contributed to this report.