MOGADISHU, Somalia – Islamic extremists attacked a popular Somalia restaurant in an overnight siege and killed 31 people — many at point-blank range — before they were slain by security forces, police said Thursday.
Survivors described harrowing scenes of hiding under tables and behind curtains as the five gunmen hunted for victims in the darkened Pizza House restaurant. Nearly 40 people were wounded.
Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the attack, which began Wednesday evening with a car bomb exploding at the gate to the restaurant and ended when troops secured the site after dawn, said senior police Capt. Mohamed Hussein.
"I never thought I would have the chance to see the sun again. They were killing people on sight," university student Saida Hussein told The Associated Press. She said she survived by hiding behind a large table.
Soldiers in gun-mounted vehicles surrounded the building, and troops later entered the ground floor as al-Shabab snipers defended their positions upstairs. The battle to end the siege was hampered by darkness, Hussein said.
Aden Karie said he 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," Karie said as he was taken to an ambulance.
The bodies of five girls believed to have been killed by the extremists were found in the restaurant, police said. The body of a Syrian man who worked as a chef lay near a blood-spattered and bullet-marked wall.
The car bomb that began the attack blew the roofs off the restaurant and other nearby buildings. Many of the first victims were young men who had been entering the Pizza House when the bomb went off, Hussein said.
The extremists, appearing to pose as security forces, then rushed inside the restaurant.
The gunmen "were dressed in military uniforms. They forced those fleeing the site to go inside," witness Nur Yasin told the AP.
A neighboring restaurant, Posh Treats, which is frequented by the city's elite, was damaged in the blast, security officials said. Security forces rescued Asian, Ethiopian, Kenyan and other workers at Posh Treats as the attack continued, Hussein said.
President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed called the victims "martyrs" and noted that the attack came during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The United States mission to Somalia said many of the victims had been breaking their daily Ramadan fast when the attack began.
Ramadan "is a time of spiritual reflection and increased piety, which makes the timing of this attack all the more atrocious," the U.S. statement said.
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 was the deadliest Islamic extremist group in Africa last year, killing more than 4,200 people, 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. On Sunday, the U.S. military in Africa said it conducted an airstrike in southern Somalia that killed eight extremists at a rebel command and logistics camp.
Somalia's president confirmed the airstrike and said such attacks would disrupt the group's ability to conduct new operations.
Pressure is growing on Somalia's military to assume full security responsibilities for the country. The 22,000-member 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.