A suicide car bomb detonated outside the Asasey Hotel on Friday, where community elders and lawmakers had been discussing an upcoming election, and was followed by shooting as gunmen stormed into the hotel, police said.
The al-Shabaab extremist Islamist group have claimed the responsibility for the attack on Friday evening.
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Most of the victims were patrons of the hotel, according to local district official Abdi Ahmed, who said two journalists were among the dead. He warned the death toll may rise as the fighting between extremist gunmen and security forces continued late on Friday night.
Police and residents told the Reuters news agency that attackers were still inside the hotel as of 11pm local time.
“We believe the militants are still in the building. We have not confirmed the death toll, but there were many people inside, and there may be a high death toll,” said police captain Abdullahi Isak.
Major Mohamed Abdi, another police officer, said local politicians were meeting at the Hotel Asasey when the attack happened.
Hussein Nur, a shopkeeper in Kismayu, added: “There were many people including officials and elders, mostly from one clan, who were discussing the coming Kismayu election.”
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Somali Journalists Syndicate said in a statement that two journalists based in Kismayu had been confirmed dead in the attack.
“Mohamed Omar Sahal, SBC TV correspondent based in Kismayu and Hodan Naleyeh, female TV journalist and founder of Integration TV [are] both among [those] killed,” Abdalle Ahmed Mumin, the syndicate’s secretary general, said.
Prime minister Hassan Ali Khaire condemned the attack, the state-run Somali National News Agency said in a statement.
Al-Shabaab was removed from Mogadishu in 2011 and has since been driven from most of its other strongholds.
The group was driven out of Kismayu in 2012. The city’s port had been a major source of revenue for the group from taxes, charcoal exports and levies on arms and other illegal imports.
Kismayu is the commercial capital of Jubbaland, a region of southern Somalia still partly controlled by al-Shabaab.
It remains a major security threat, with fighters frequently carrying out bombings in Somalia and neighbouring Kenya, whose troops form part of the African Union-mandated peacekeeping force that helps defend the Somali government.
Additional reporting by agencies