MOGADISHU - Somalia’s Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab rebels on Friday launched a major suicide attack against the heavily-fortified presidential palace, home to the country’s internationally-backed government, killing officials and guards in a fierce gun battle.

A huge car bomb exploded at the perimeter of the central Mogadishu complex, and a group of at least nine suicide attackers breached the Villa Somalia compound, one of the best-defended locations in the war-torn country. Shebab rebels immediately claimed responsibility.

The country’s president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, said he was unharmed. He branded the Shebab “a marginal group on the brink of extinction” and vowed Somalia’s army and the African Union’s AMISOM force would “eliminate” the group. “A suicide bomber rammed a car full of explosives into the perimeter wall of the presidential palace and another one with heavily armed men penetrated the area where the first one hit,” said Hussein Isa, who witnessed the attack.

Security forces fought a fierce gun battle with the attackers, all young men or teenagers who appeared to be disguised in police uniforms.  Another police official said nine attackers were later found dead and that five Somali soldiers or officials had also died.

A government source said Somalia’s former deputy intelligence chief Mohamed Nur Shirbow and Mohamed Abdulle, a close aide to the prime minister, were among the victims. The National Union of Somali Journalists said a local radio journalist was also in a critical condition.

A spokesman for Shebab confirmed to AFP by telephone that the group carried out the attack. “Our commandos have attacked the so-called presidential palace in order to kill or arrest those who are inside. The enemy had suffered a great deal of harm,” Sheikh Abdul Aziz Abu Musab said.

The attack came just a week after the militants carried out a suicide car bomb attack at the gates of Mogadishu’s heavily-fortified international airport, and the Shebab spokesman said the hardline group wanted to show “that no place is safe for the apostate government”. “The airport, so-called presidential palace and anywhere in Somalia can be attacked as we plan,” he said.

Somalia’s National Security Minister Abdikarim Hussein Guled said the assault was a “desperate” and “failed attack,” as the complex was sealed off by Somali troops and soldiers from AMISOM, the African Union force fighting the Shebab. “Things are back to normal and the security forces are in full control of the situation,” he said.

Somalia’s president vowed that the attack would have no impact on the government’s effort to stabilise the Horn of Africa nation.

“I would remind everyone that all our misguided enemies will achieve are short-lived media headlines, here one day and gone the next. What they will not achieve, however, is any noticeable impact on the work of our government as we seek to rebuild Somalia after decades of war,” the president said in a statement.

“An act of terrorism, however unspeakable, does not hide the truth that this is a marginal group on the brink of extinction. The military campaign we are fighting with brave Somali and AMISOM soldiers will eliminate our enemies,” he said.

UN special envoy Nick Kay also condemned the attack. “The Somali people are tired of shootings, bombings and killings. It’s time for a new chapter in Somalia’s history and we cannot allow a slide back at this critical time,” Kay said in a statement.

The attack comes amid an apparent upsurge of Shebab bombings in and around Mogadishu.

The group, who also carried out last year’s attack against the Westgate shopping mall in the Kenyan capital, once controlled most of southern and central Somalia but withdrew from fixed positions in the ruined coastal capital two years ago.

African Union troops - including large contingents from Uganda, Kenya and Burundi - have since recaptured the insurgent’s main bases and tried to prop up Somalia’s fledgling government forces.

But a string of devastating Shebab attacks against foreign and government targets have shattered hopes of a rebirth for the war-ravaged capital, and questioned speculation that the group was in the process of imploding amid a fierce internal power struggle.