MOGADISHU – Islamist gunmen stormed a popular beachside restaurant in the Somali capital Mogadishu on Thursday, setting off two car bombs and battling government soldiers trying to flush them out.
Al-Shabab, a militant group aligned with al-Qaida, claimed responsibility for the attack on the Beach View Cafe on Mogadishu’s popular Lido beach.
“We are inside and control the cafe,” Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, spokesman for al-Shabab’s military operations, told Reuters. “There are many casualties lying inside and outside the café.”
Police said al Shabab fighters set off the first car bomb at dusk. A huge second blast, which witnesses said echoed around Mogadishu city center, struck about an hour later as government soldiers laid siege to the restaurant.
“The second car bomb has just exploded and the fighters are still inside,” Maj. Farah Abdulle, a police officer at the scene, told Reuters. “We cannot know the number of casualties inside.”
Al-Shabab wants to topple the Western-backed government in Mogadishu and impose a strict version of Islamic law across Somalia, a nation racked by conflict since the outbreak of civil war in 1991.
Other reports said a single suicide car bomber rammed the gates of a restaurant near a beach in the capital and then gunmen fought their way into the building, a police official said late Thursday, adding it wasn’t immediately clear if there were any casualties.
The attackers may have taken hostages inside the restaurant, which is popular with the city’s elite and government officials, Capt. Mohammed Hussein said. The attackers opened fire on the customers of the restaurant, known as Liido Seafood, on Thursday evening before storming the restaurant in Mogadishu, he said.
The report said there was no immediate claim of responsibility for the ongoing attack, which bore the hallmarks of the Islamic extremist group al-Shabab.
Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for an attack last week on Kenyan peacekeepers in southwestern Somalia. The al-Qaida-linked group said it had killed about 100 Kenyans in that attack, but the Kenyan government has given no death toll.
Despite being pushed out of Somalia’s major cities and towns, al-Shabab continues to launch deadly guerrilla attacks across the Horn of Africa country. African Union troops, government officials and foreigners are frequently targeted.
“There was a car bomb explosion at a restaurant at the Lido beach, there is shooting and gunfire,” police officer Ahmed Bidan said.
The Lido beach area in Mogadishu is busy with restaurants, including upmarket establishments popular with business people and diaspora Somalis who have returned home to the city.
Shabab, who are fighting to overthrow the internationally backed government in Mogadishu, carry out regular attacks in the capital.
The Islamists are on a mission to disprove claims they are close to defeat since being routed from Mogadishu in mid-2011 and losing several alleged commanders in U.S. drone strikes.
Last week they stormed a Kenyan army base in southwest Somalia, in the latest incident of an AU Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) base being overrun by the militants.
Kenya has so far declined to say how many of its soldiers are dead, injured or missing but a Shabab statement said that more than 100 Kenyan soldiers were killed and others captured.