MOGADISHU: Somalia's Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab fighters briefly took control of a small town on the border with Kenya in a battle that left at least 12 people dead, military officials and witnesses said Sunday.
Heavy fighting broke out late Saturday afternoon in Bulohawo and lasted into the evening, residents and military commanders said, with residents confirming that the Shebab took full control of the town for a few hours before Somali troops were able to reinforce their positions. "The violent elements attacked Bulohawo in late afternoon and after heavy fighting our forces defeated them and inflicted heavy losses on them," Diyad Abdi Kalil, a Somali military commander in the area, told AFP by phone.
Casualty estimates varied but most sources agreed that at least a dozen people, most of them fighters for the two sides, had been killed. "The Shebab attacked the town from three directions and penetrated the barracks of the Somali troops after heavy fighting. They briefly took control of the town but were later forced back. Twelve people, most of them the fighters from the two sides, died," said resident Sadik Mohamed.
Another resident, Hussein Mahat Abdulle, confirmed he had seen bodies in government uniform as well as bodies of what looked like Shebab fighters. Kalil said his men had killed "nearly 20" Shebab, but a spokesman for the militants dismissed that claim and said his men had killed 15 Somali government troops. "Today was a victorious day for the mujahedeen fighters who carried out several military operations, the main attack against the apostate militants helping the infidels at Bulohawo," said Shebab spokesman Sheik Abdiasis Abu Mus'ab.
"The Mujahedeen fighters penetrated their defences and took control of the city for many hours. Around 15 of the apostate militia were killed," he said, referring to the Somali government troops fighting alongside regional armies to overcome the Shebab.
Bulohawo, which lies just across the border from the town of Mandera in the extreme northeast of Kenya, has been calm so far Sunday, residents said. Officials said two civilians in Mandera town had been hit by gunfire during the fighting.
Mandera County Commissioner Michael Ole Tialal told AFP that civilians and Somali troops had fled briefly across the border to escape the fighting. "Many civilians and Somali soldiers crossed to border point one in Mandera," he said by phone. "Once the fighting subsided and the attackers were repulsed many crossed back over," he said. Around 10 civilians injured in the fighting were also evacuated across the border to Mandera for medical treatment, according to residents on the Kenyan side.
The attack appeared to have come as a surprise, with the Shebab having been forced out of their major strongholds by troops from the African Union force AMISOM over the past months. The Shebab have been blamed for a series of cross-border raids into northeastern Kenya since Nairobi's troops invaded southern Somalia last year to chase out the militant fighters.
Earlier this month Somalia put in place a new government set up in a United Nations-backed process, which it is hoped will give the war-torn country its first effective central government since president Mohamed Siad Barre was ousted in 1991, unleashing cycles of bloody conflict that have defied countless peace initiatives.