MOGADISHU - At least 19 people have been killed in Somalia's capital Mogadishu, ambulance workers said Friday, as security forces fought to end a nearly 20-hour siege by Al-Shabaab insurgents.
The attack began on Thursday evening when a Shabaab militant in a car blew himself up, causing a huge blast that ripped the front of a major hotel and left several cars in flames on the busy street.
Other fighters from the jihadist group then stormed inside a building housing a restaurant, where they were quickly surrounded by police.
Sporadic shooting continued throughout Thursday night and into Friday.
Medics had pulled five bodies from the wreckage immediately after the explosion, but the recovery of more bodies was blocked for hours by the ensuing fighting.
And by Friday afternoon, they said the toll had climbed significantly.
"We have recovered 14 more dead bodies from under the rubble of collapsed buildings, bringing the total number of dead to 19," said Aamin Ambulance director Abdikadir Abdirahman.
Another 60 people were wounded in the violence.
Heavy explosions could be heard coming from the building on Friday afternoon as Somalia's elite soldiers appeared to move in to storm Shabaab positions.
But there was no immediate confirmation the siege was over, with occasional gunshots still ringing out.
Earlier, Abdirahman Ali, a national security officer, had said at least 10 people had been killed, but it was unclear if they were the same victims recorded by medics.
The attack is the latest in a long line of bombing and assaults carried out by the Al-Qaeda-linked group.
'Whole area in flames'
The massive blast which began the assault was so powerful that it threw several vehicles into the air which then burst into flames.
Shabaab insurgents said the bombing was aimed at killing senior officials staying in the Maka Al-Mukarama hotel.
Mogadishu has been regularly targeted by the Shabaab in its long fight to topple the government.
Witnesses said the bombing took place in the early evening, when the street was filled with people relaxing after a day's work.
"The whole area was in flames," said Abdisamed Mohamed, a witness. "There was gunfire too."
Shabaab fighters fled the fixed positions they once held in Mogadishu in 2011, and have since lost many of their strongholds.
But they retain control of large rural swathes of the country, and continue to wage a guerrilla war against the authorities.