Heavy fighting has been reported in central Somalia after al-Shabab militants stormed a government military camp in the town of Masagaway on Tuesday, the second attack in days.
Security sources who are following the situation say deadly fighting ensued between government forces and al-Shabab following the militant attack.
According to one security official involved in the efforts against al-Shabab, the militants raided a military camp at dawn. The camp is manned by troops trained in Eritrea and local fighters. He said the militants managed to enter the camp and remove three vehicles.
As the militants exited the town, reinforcements from the town of el-Dheer just north of Masagaway ambushed al-Shabab militants sparking a fierce gun battle.
The two officials who requested anonymity because they do not have authorization to speak to the media said reinforcement forces inflicted heavy losses on al-Shabab and recovered some of the vehicles and weapons taken by the militants.
Dozens of fatalities have been reported on both sides.
In a press statement, the Somali government said government troops and local fighters have repulsed militants who attempted to storm the town. The statement said that 30 were killed in the attack and three vehicles were captured and three soldiers were injured.
Al-Shabab meanwhile, said its fighters overran the base and killed 73 soldiers and seized vehicles. Both specific claims have not been independently verified.
Masagaway, about 270 km northeast of Mogadishu, was captured by government forces and local fighters in January of this year. In April, al-Shabab raided the town, killing three elders who have been involved in the local mobilization against the group.
The attack comes as military campaigns against al-Shabab appear to have paused in the central regions.
It also comes just four days after militants carried out another deadly attack on a military base manned by Ugandan forces serving as part of the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS).
Both the AU and Uganda are still assessing the number of fatalities as a result of the attack as the militants are still present in the vicinity of the base in the town of Bulo Marer, which is 110 km south of Mogadishu.
The Ugandan military has confirmed to VOA Somali that a company of 221 soldiers was stationed at the base.
Al-Shabab initially claimed killing 137 soldiers in the attack before one of the group’s most senior commanders, Mahad Karate, increased the number to over 200 killed, a figure that has not been independently verified.
But a spokesperson for the Uganda Peoples’ Defense Forces (UPDF), Brigadier General Felix Kulaigye, said the group is exaggerating the death toll.
“Certainly, they are exaggerating,” he said.
Kulaigye said details of the casualties will come after an investigation as UPDF sent a team to Mogadishu.
Kulaigye confirmed that some of their soldiers were captured by al-Shabab following the May 26 complex attack.
“I don’t just believe, I know some were,” he responded when asked if he believes some of their soldiers may have been captured by al-Shabab as claimed by the militant group.
He said it would be speculation to give the number of soldiers who were captured by al-Shabab.
On Tuesday, ATMIS said “a substantial number of the terrorists have been eliminated,” and multiple weapons looted from the Bulo Marer base retrieved following a joint operation by the AU and Somali forces.
The United States military also said it had carried out an airstrike against the group on the day of the attack.
“The strike destroyed weapons and equipment unlawfully taken by al-Shabaab fighters,” AFRICOM said in a statement.
Asked about how the Bulo Marer attack might impact UPDF operations in Somalia, Kulaigye said it makes the soldiers more determined to fight al-Shabab.
“It gives us more determination to deal with this enemy of peace in Somalia,” he said.
“They will pay for that attack. No one attacks UPDF and goes scot-free.”