‘Massacre’ at Somalia hotel leaves at least 31 dead

Insurgents in army uniforms stormed a hotel in the Somali capital Tuesday, killing at least 31 people, including six lawmakers, in an hourlong blaze of gunfire, explosions and smoke.

The Shabab movement, an Islamic militant group fighting the frail internationally backed government of Somalia for years, claimed responsibility for the attack. Statements from the group cited by news organizations indicated that the assault was part of a “massive war” it declared Monday against the Somali government and the United Nations-backed peacekeeping force propping it up.

Perpetually in crisis, the violent Horn of Africa country of Somalia has been a source of instability since the early 1990s. Pirates roam its Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden shores while bandits, warlords and Islamic militants control much of the nation, despite the presence of the 6,000-strong African Union peacekeeping force.

A report Tuesday by privately owned Radio Shabelle said the fighting between insurgent groups and government forces in the capital had been increasing over the last two days, with dozens killed and civilians bearing the brunt of the casualties.

Witnesses to the attack Tuesday told the Voice of America’s Somali service that three militants initially approached the Hotel Muna. A government news release citing police said the militants entered the hotel in Mogadishu’s Hamar Weyne district and “fired indiscriminately” at civilians. At one point, one of the militants blew himself up, possibly with a grenade, according to news accounts citing witnesses.

A gun battle ensued as security forces arrived, the British Broadcasting Corp. cited a witness as saying. One hotel employee told Agence France-Presse that he survived only because he managed to jump out a window as a militant trained a gun on him. Another survivor told the BBC that corpses lay “all over,” calling the incident a “massacre.” Among the dead were hotel staffers and five members of the security forces.

The attack took place during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, a time of dawn-to-dusk fasting and contemplation of the Koran.

“They have no motive other than to terrorize the Somali people,” Minister of Information Abdirahman Omar Osman said in a statement. “This is a deplorable act in this holy month of Ramadan. It shows their brutality and lack of respect for humanity.”

Shabab and allied groups are trying to topple the Somali government. They control much of the capital and huge swaths of the countryside. The Shabab movement claimed responsibility for coordinated attacks in Uganda last month during the World Cup soccer finals that killed at least 70 people and were seen as an attempt to weaken the government’s resolve to contribute the bulk of the African Union force’s manpower.

But the special U.N. envoy to Somalia said the latest attack only reinforced the world body’s resolve to back the presence in the country of the African Union forces from Uganda and Burundi.

Such violence, Augustine Mahiga, the envoy to Somalia, said in a statement, “will only serve to increase the determination of all friends of Somalia to help bring a quick end to the conflict and to provide Somalis with hope for the future.”