MOGADISHU, Somalia — Islamist militants stormed a popular hotel in the heart of Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, on Sunday, blowing up the front gate with a car bomb, shooting guests and hotel workers, and then battling with security forces from the hotel’s rooftop for several hours.
Witnesses said at least 10 people were killed in the attack on the Sahafi Hotel, which was immediately — and gleefully — laid claim to by the Shabab militant group.
If there is one hotel everyone knows in Mogadishu, it is the Sahafi. Warlords and militants alike used to hang out in the lounge and courtyard, sipping grapefruit juice and pulling apart camel meat steaks, plotting their various schemes.
Sahafi means journalist in Arabic, and for years the hotel has served as the gateway to one of the world’s most dangerous countries for foreign journalists, aid workers, and the rare and brave businessman. Even in the hardest times, the staff managed to provide clean rooms and delicious food. Succulent lobster was one of the house specialties, served alongside mountains of French fries. More recently, the hotel was a popular rendezvous spot for officials from Somalia’s fledgling government.
On Sunday morning around dawn, witnesses said, a car rammed into the Sahafi’s front gate and immediately exploded. Several Shabab fighters then scrambled into the hotel, shooting guests. A second car bomb exploded two hours later, killing and wounding several journalists who had rushed to the hotel, located at a busy traffic circle in central Mogadishu, to report on the attack. One journalist was killed.
Among the other dead, witnesses said, were a Somali lawmaker, a retired Somali Army general and the hotel’s owner, Abdirashid Ilgayte, who used to welcome guests into his incense-scented office just off the hotel’s entrance and regale them with stories of violence and intrigue from Somalia’s darkest days.
“The Shabab fighters seized the hotel and controlled it for several hours,” said Mohamed Ali, a taxi driver who was outside the Sahafi while the fighting was going on.
The Shabab remain a potent force in Somalia. They have lost many fighters and much of their territory, pushed out by a coalition of troops from neighboring African countries
. But they are still wily and highly dangerous, and considered one of Al Qaeda’s most murderous offshoots. Recently, they seemed to have perfected mass murder on the cheap, including an attack on a university in Kenya
in April that left 142 people dead.
”Mujahedeen entered and took over Sahafi hotel where enemies lived,” Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, the Shabab’s military operations spokesman, told Reuters on Sunday, using a common term for Islamic guerrilla fighters.
Multipronged attacks on hotels have become one of the hallmarks of the Shabab, who have killed scores in Mogadishu in recent years by overwhelming security guards at the gates and then sending in suicidal fighters. The Shabab have vowed to turn Somalia into a pure Islamic state; most of their victims have been fellow Somali Muslims.
Photographs taken by bystanders on Sunday showed a huge hole punched through the Sahafi’s third floor, along with streams of black smoke uncoiling into the sky. Witnesses said several members of the hotel staff had been hiding in locked rooms, calling for help, as Shabab fighters stalked the hallways, trying to find more victims.
By 11 a.m., African Union troops in Somalia, along with government forces, said they had taken control of the hotel, but some witnesses said they still heard gunfire.