MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — Among the survivors of al-Shabab's attack on a beachside restaurant in Somalia's capital was Mohamed Abdiqani Kheyre. He is only 3 years old, and his mother was killed.
Witnesses said the Islamic extremists entered the restaurant from the beach Thursday evening, shouting "Allahu akbar," Arabic for "God is great," as they fired at people indiscriminately.
On Friday, relatives were identifying the dead, who numbered around 20. The bodies were laid out on the sand, their heads covered by yellow tablecloths, many soaked with blood. Some family members burst into tears upon discovering the body of a loved one.
The beach, which symbolized the resurgence of Somalia's capital in recent years with people flocking to the shore and swimming in the Indian Ocean, had become a scene of bottomless grief.
One woman beat her chest, whispering the name of her son who was killed in the attack. She collapsed as his bloodied body was transported into an ambulance.
"They randomly fired at people sitting near the beach before entering the restaurant," said Ahmed Nur, who was strolling along the shoreline when the attack happened. A party had been taking place when the attack started.
After identifying the dead, relatives carried bodies away.
The Liido Seafood restaurant was littered with blood-stained, overturned chairs, tables, shoes and bullet casings, the walls scarred from bullet impacts and blackened with soot.
The attack came a week after al-Shabab overran a Kenyan army base in Somalia, signaling the group's resilience despite military setbacks inflicted by a U.S.-backed regional force operating in the country.
On a normal Friday, Liido Beach would be packed with hundreds of people surfing, swimming and strolling along the white sand. On this day, armed soldiers stood guard near the beach. Fishing boats that would normally transport picnickers drifted at anchor in the blue waters.
"It's a sad day, whenever a hope comes up it gets dashed by such attacks. This city's future is precarious," said Mumina Ahmed, a Somali-American who returned to Mogadishu last week after 14 years in Virginia.
Somali Security Minister Abdirizak Omar Mohamed said the suspected leader of the attack has been arrested.
The assault on civilians relaxing along the beachfront echoed an attack by an Islamic extremist at a tourist beach in Tunisia last year. Several dozen people, mostly Britons, died in that slaughter.
Survivors of the Liido Seafood attack said that militants forced restaurant's guests onto the ground before randomly killing them.
"I hid myself downstairs in the bathroom until troops came to my rescue. It was a terrible night," said Abdiqani Guled
Mohamed was wounded in the attack, and on Friday the little boy's right arm and neck were bandaged as he lay on a hospital bed, as a new generation came to know the violence that has afflicted this Horn of Africa nation for more than two decades.
His aunt, Halima Hassan, tended to Mohamed, who gazed up at her with big eyes.
The security forces took control of the restaurant just before dawn, said Capt. Mohamed Hussein, speaking from the scene.
Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the attack, in a broadcast on its online radio late Thursday.
Some people spent terrifying hours at the scene, not knowing if they would live to see the dawn.
"I was intending to go out but suddenly we heard a heavy explosion followed by gunfire. ... I saw a militant fighter shooting indiscriminately at everybody. Then I locked myself inside a room until we were evacuated peacefully by the security forces," said Abdulkadir Mohamed Somow, who had been trapped inside the restaurant.
Blasts and bursts of gunfire could be heard as Somali special forces went from room to room, pursuing the al-Shabab gunmen.
Hussein, the police official, said security forces rescued many people who had been trapped.
While al-Shabab fighters fled Mogadishu in 2011 under pressure from an African Union military force, they have managed to carry out sporadic bombings and shootings in the capital and launch coordinated attacks against AU forces in the countryside.
Al-Shabab attacked Kenyan peacekeepers in southwestern Somalia last week, and overran their base. The al-Qaida-linked group said it had killed about 100 Kenyans and seized weapons and military vehicles. The Kenyan government has given no death toll.