In the Somali capital, the Shabab extremist group has a deadly effective method of spreading terror: A suicide bomber detonates a car at the entrance to a hotel popular with government members, then gunmen swarm in, killing guests, taking hostages and posting snipers on the rooftop to fire on arriving security forces.
At least 14 people were killed Saturday in the latest such attack, on the Nasa-Hablod hotel in Mogadishu, according to police. United Nations special representative Michael Keating put the toll higher, at least 20. Nine other people were reported injured.
Security forces pursued the assailants to the top floor of the hotel before bringing the hours-long assault to an end late Saturday, the Associated Press reported.
At least four gunmen took part in the attack. The Ministry of Internal Security said all of them were killed, but the AP cited police as saying two gunmen were killed.
People carried bodies from the hotel into the street, which was carpeted in debris from the initial blast.
A witness identified as Ali Mohamud told the AP that the assailants shot randomly at guests.
"They were shooting at everyone they could see," he said. "I escaped through the back door."
A local online news organization, Goobjoog, said on Twitter that three of its employees were among the dead. Several security guards also were reported killed.
Al Shabab, which claimed responsibility for the attack, has been under intense pressure in recent years, losing a succession of leaders to U.S. drone strikes. The group has been driven out of major cities and seaports. And it has seen divisions and killings in its ranks over whether to ally with Islamic State or stay loyal to Al Qaeda.
Yet it remains capable of launching major terrorist operations every few weeks, as well as almost daily shootings targeting civilians, police and others who cooperate with the Somali government.
Three weeks ago, the group staged an attack on another Mogadishu hotel, the Ambassador, in which 15 people died, including two Somali lawmakers.
Shabab militants also continue to do battle against U.N.-backed African Union forces and Ethiopian troops in various parts of Somalia, ambushing bases and convoys. The casualties in such attacks are hard to assess; neither side can be relied on to provide accurate figures.
However, the militants have in recent months scored some notable victories, including an attack on a Kenyan base in southern Somalia in January that killed as many as 200 soldiers, according to the Somali government. Kenya's government disputed the number of casualties but never announced a final toll.
Al Shabab once controlled the capital and most of the country. Yet most of its biggest attacks have been carried out since it lost control of Mogadishu in August 2011. They include an attack on a Kenyan university last year that killed 148 people, most of them Christian students; and one on a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2013 that killed 67.
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2:06 p.m.: This article was updated with staff reporting throughout.