MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — At least 31 people are dead after the overnight siege of a popular restaurant in Somalia’s capital by al-Shabab Islamic extremists, ended Thursday morning by security forces with all five attackers killed. Police said many victims were killed at point-blank range after being hunted down.
Survivors described harrowing scenes of hiding under tables and behind curtains as attackers searched for patrons in the darkened Pizza House restaurant, firing their weapons.
Al-Shabab claimed responsibility shortly after the assault began with a car bomb exploding at the restaurant’s gate.
Soldiers surrounded the building and used vehicle-mounted guns to neutralize the attackers early Thursday. Troops entered the ground floor while the extremist snipers held positions upstairs.
All five attackers were killed and the soldiers secured the building after dawn, said senior Somali police Capt. Mohamed Hussein. Efforts to take control of the restaurant were slowed by the darkness of night, d Hussein said.
Many of the 31 victims were killed at point-blank range, Hussein said. Nearly 40 other people were wounded.
“I never thought I would have the chance to see the sun again. They were killing people on sight,” Saida Hussein, a university student, told The Associated Press. She said she survived by hiding behind a large table downstairs.
Another survivor, Aden Karie, was wounded by an attacker who spotted him moving behind a curtain.
“He shot at me twice and one bullet struck me on the leg,” said Karie as he was taken to a waiting ambulance.
The bodies of five girls thought to have been killed by the extremists were found in the restaurant, police said. Inside the building, the body of a Syrian man who worked as a chef there lay near the rubble of a blood-spattered and bullet-marked wall.
The attack began Wednesday evening when a car bomb exploded at the gate to the restaurant and gunmen posing as military forces stormed in. The roofs were blown off the restaurant and nearby buildings by the blast.
Many early victims were young men who had been entering the Pizza House when the vehicle exploded, Hussein said.
The gunmen “were dressed in military uniforms. They forced those fleeing the site to go inside” the restaurant, witness Nur Yasin told the AP.
While al-Shabab claimed to have attacked the neighboring Posh Treats restaurant, which is frequented by the city’s elite and was damaged in the blast, security officials said the Pizza House was targeted instead.
Security forces rescued Asian, Ethiopian, Kenyan and other workers at Posh Treats as the attack continued, Hussein said.
The Somalia-based al-Shabab often targets high-profile areas of Mogadishu, including hotels, military checkpoints and areas near the presidential palace. It has vowed to step up attacks after the recently elected government launched a new military offensive against it.
Al-Shabab last year became the deadliest Islamic extremist group in Africa, with more than 4,200 people killed in 2016, according to the Washington-based Africa Center for Strategic Studies.
The extremist group also faces a new military push from the United States after President Donald Trump approved expanded operations, including airstrikes, against al-Shabab. On Sunday, the U.S. military in Africa said it carried out an airstrike in southern Somalia that killed eight Islamic extremists at a rebel command and logistics camp.
Somalia President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed confirmed that airstrike and said such attacks would disrupt the group’s ability to conduct new attacks.
With a new federal government established, pressure is growing on Somalia’s military to assume full responsibility for the country’s security. The 22,000-strong African Union multinational force, AMISOM, which has been supporting the fragile central government, plans to start withdrawing in 2018 and leave by the end of 2020.