MOGADISHU (Reuters) – Militant Islamist group al Shabaab struck a Somali government military base on Wednesday with car bombs and gunfire in a battle that both sides said caused multiple deaths to the other.
Witnesses said some local residents were also killed by stray crossfire during the mid-morning attack on the base in Awdheegle, 70 km (43 miles) southwest of the capital Mogadishu.
Al Shabaab is fighting the weak, U.N.-backed Somali government and its international allies in a quest to impose its strict interpretation of Islamic law. The Horn of Africa nation has been riven by civil war since 1992, when clan-based warlords overthrew a dictator, then turned on each other.
General Yusuf Rage Odowa, commander of operations in Somalia’s army, said troops had repelled the jihadists in Awdheegle. “The forces knew the cunning of the militants and so they foiled the attack,” he said, adding that various of the attackers’ corpses lay at the scene while others were captured.
Captain Hussein Ali, a military officer from a nearby town, said soldiers behind sandbags had successfully stopped the car bombs from reaching the base, in an agricultural district along the Shabelle River, by firing to detonate them.
“There are casualties from al Shabaab and government forces, but we have no exact figure,” he said.
The al Qaeda-linked group said it had killed 50 soldiers and only suffered two losses of militants who drove the car bombs. Army vehicles were burned, it also said.
Al Shabaab and government officials routinely give different versions and casualty figures for attacks.
Among those killed was a journalist working with the army’s radio station, the Federation of Somali Journalists said.
The attack came after Somali government forces had last week captured most parts of Awdheegle district.
“We heard two huge blasts and gunfire from the direction of the Somali military base. I saw several soldiers running away from the base to escape but we cannot know how many were killed,” elder Aden Abdullahi told Reuters from the scene.
Shopkeeper and mother-of-four Halima Farah told Reuters that government troops were in control of the town after the attack.
“We have now come out of the houses,” Farah said by phone.
“We believe both the militants and government suffered great losses of lives today but we cannot see their casualties. Stray bullets killed people in their houses,” she added, saying a relative of hers died after being hit in the head.
Al Shabaab was forced out of Mogadishu in 2011 and has since lost most of its other strongholds. But its fighters frequently carry out attacks in Somalia and neighbouring Kenya, whose troops form part of an African peacekeeping force.
Reporting by Abdi Sheikh and Feisal Omar; Writing by George Obulutsa; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne