MOGADISHU (Reuters) -Somali security forces stormed a hotel in the capital on Monday to end a near day-long siege by al Shabaab militants who killed nine people at the building near the president's residence in the capital, police said.
Gunfire crackled from inside the hotel as the special forces fought the militants more than 12 hours after the Islamist group stormed the building in the centre of Mogadishu.
A police spokesperson said 60 civilians had been rescued, while a government minister said he and others had kicked down a door to escape after being caught in the hotel following evening prayers when a suicide bomber struck and the gunbattle broke out.
The assault underscores the continuing ability of the al Qaeda-allied militants to stage deadly attacks with sometimes high casualties inside the city even as President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud's government presses an offensive against them.
"The operation at the hotel Rose has been concluded," Sadik Aden Ali, the police spokesperson said, referring to the Villa Rose hotel where the siege occurred.
Ali said the militants had killed eight civilians and later added that one soldier had also died in the siege. Five soldiers were injured, he said.
Six al Shabaab fighters had been involved in the attack, with one blowing himself up and five shot dead by the security forces, Ali said.
Al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab, which controls swathes of the country, claimed responsibility for the attack, saying in a statement that it was targeting the nearby presidential palace.
Al Shabaab, which is seeking to topple the government and establish its own rule based on an extreme interpretation of Islamic law, frequently stages attacks in Mogadishu and elsewhere.
Government officials in Mogadishu often use the Villa Rose hotel for meetings. Some officials also live there.
Somalia's environment minister Adam Aw Hirsi said the assault on the hotel, where he lives, began with a deafening explosion by a suicide bomber who was followed by militants on foot to breach the perimeter of the heavily guarded hotel.
"I had exited the hotel mosque where we performed the evening prayer in congregation when the explosion hit. The roof of the VIP room I was in flew and glasses shattered far and wide," Hirsi told Reuters, describing the scene of the attack.
"Then bullets rained in all directions," he said, adding that he, a friend and another minister fled the building through a back exit. "Many people followed us to the exit, we broke the door with collective kicks and we exited to safety," he said.
Asked what the government would do next, he said there was no turning back and the government would "not let up the fight".
Somalia government forces, supported by clan militias and, at times, African Union troops and U.S. air strikes, have made a number of battlefield gains in offensive against al Shabaab over the last three months.
The U.S. military has conducted several air strikes against the al Shabaab this year, but it was not clear whether it was involved in Monday's battle.
Despite being pushed back, al Shabaab has still been able to stage large attacks on both civilian and military targets.
In October two car bombs exploded at Somalia's education ministry next to a busy market intersection, killing at least 120 people. It was the deadliest attack since a truck bomb exploded at the same intersection in October 2017, killing more than 500 people.
Somalia's parliament said it had postponed a scheduled session for both of its houses on Monday as the siege unfolded.
(Reporting by Abdiqani Hassan in Bosaso; Additional reporting by Mukelwa Hlatshwayo in NairobiWriting by Elias Biryabarema and George Obulutsa; Editing by James Macharia Chege, Gareth Jones and Alison Williams)