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Militants slaughter lawmakers at Somali hotel

A suicide bomber and gunmen wearing military uniforms attacked a hotel near Somalia's presidential palace, sparking a one-hour gun battle that left at least 32 people dead.
A nurse at Medina hospital treats a wounded civilian in Mogadishu, Somalia, on Tuesday after he was wounded by mortar shrapnel during fighting between Somali insurgents and African Union troops.
A nurse at Medina hospital treats a wounded civilian in Mogadishu, Somalia, on Tuesday after he was wounded by mortar shrapnel during fighting between Somali insurgents and African Union troops.Mohamed Sheikh Nor / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Islamist militants wearing Somali military uniforms stormed a hotel favored by lawmakers in the war-battered capital Tuesday, firing indiscriminately and killing 32 people, including six parliamentarians.

A suicide bomber and one of the gunmen were also killed in the brazen attack just a half-mile (1 kilometer) from the presidential palace. The attack showed the insurgent group al-Shabab, which controls wide areas of Somalia, can penetrate even the few blocks of the capital under the control of the government and African Union troops.

Tuesday's well-planned assault came one day after al-Shabab warned of a new "massive war." Sheik Ali Mohamud Rage, an insurgent spokesman, said the attack by members of the group's "special forces" targeted government leaders, foreign agents and "apostates" at the $10-a-night Muna Hotel.

Survivors of the hour-long slaughter described seeing bodies strewn throughout the hotel and people scrambling to safety through windows. An 11-year-old shoeshine boy and a woman selling tea were among the dead.

In an interview with The Associated Press, one parliamentarian said she was jolted awake by the popping sound of gunfire. Saynab Qayad said three fellow lawmakers staying on the top floor of the three-story hotel drew their guns while other guests fled out windows.

"Smoke filled my room after bullets smashed my window. I hid myself in a corner of the room. Then a guest next door came to my door, screaming 'Come out! Come out!' And when I came out bullets continued to fly around.

"I went back to my room and locked my door. Shortly afterward, the hotel staff asked me to come down and put me in a room at the second floor with four other survivors," she said. "The body of a member of parliament was lying at that small room's door."

A manager at the Muna Hotel, Abdullahi Warsame, said the attack was carried out by two gunmen who first fired on people sitting under a tree, then opened fire at the reception desk. The gunmen then moved to the second floor, where they battled security forces and armed parliamentarians, he said. The two fought until they ran out of ammunition, when one blew himself up, Warsame said.

After it was over, Somali government forces tied the body of one of the dead assailants to the back of a pickup truck and dragged it through the dusty streets of the capital, a scene eerily reminiscent of how bodies of dead American soldiers were treated following the disastrous Black Hawk Down battle of 1993 in Mogadishu.

Tuesday's attack only extended the stream of warfare that rattled Mogadishu on Monday, when 40 civilians died in fighting between al-Shabab and Somali and African Union troops.

Somalia's deputy prime minister told AP that 19 civilians, six members of parliament, five security forces and two hotel workers were killed Tuesday — a total of 32. Two attackers also were killed, said Abdirahman Haji Aden Ibi, the deputy prime minister. A government statement said 31 people were killed. There was no way to immediately reconcile the figures.

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the attack during Ramadan highlighted al-Shabab's "complete disregard for human life, Somali culture and Islamic values."

Al-Shabab, which has links to al-Qaida and boasts veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars among its ranks, has grown deadlier in recent months. Last month it claimed twin bombings in Uganda during the World Cup final that killed 76 people.

"The only intention of this group is to destroy the nation, massacre people and then finally hand the country to ruthless foreigners," Somali President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed said. "So I call upon all Somali people to unite fighting against these enemies and help government forces."

The militant group is fighting to oust the 6,000 African Union troops from Uganda and Burundi that prop up the U.N.-backed Somali government — forces whom al-Shabab calls crusaders and invaders.

"We will eliminate them from our country in a battle we call 'the end of the aggressors,'" Rage said. "They wanted to enjoy themselves in hotels while women and children are sent to makeshift homes."

Al-Shabab calls itself a defender of the nation, but its interpretation of Islam is harsh. Al-Shabab forbids music, TV or letting women walk alone. Men must grow beards. Punishments can range from amputation to death by stoning.

In response to the World Cup attacks, the African Union pledged to increase its troop commitments to Somalia, an approach backed by the United States. The U.S. does not have any troops in Somalia but helps pay to train Somali troops and sends surveillance aircraft over Somalia.

"The United States reaffirms its strong commitment to stand with the Somali people and transitional government and the African Union mission in Somalia as they courageously work to restore peace and stability in Somalia. And we're very grateful for the fact that this week we have additional resources arriving in support of the (African Union) mission troops coming from Uganda," Crowley said.

The Somali government has struggled for years to gain relevancy, but corruption and its minuscule footprint in the country — just a few city blocks near the seaside airport — have limited its effectiveness. The deaths of six parliamentarians will have no practical effect on the government functions.

Al-Shabab operatives frequently infiltrate the small government-controlled area.

In a similar attack in December, a suicide bomber detonated himself at a university graduation ceremony about 1½ miles (3 kilometers ) from Tuesday's hotel attack, killing 24 people, including three government ministers, medical students and doctors.

Somalia has not had an effective government for 19 years.