Al-Shabaab fighters attacked a military base on the Somalia-Ethiopia border on Friday, triggering fierce fighting that caused an unknown number of casualties, security officials said.
It was the latest strike in the area by the Somalia-based jihadists in less than two weeks, raising concerns about the stability of the border and a possible new strategy by the Al-Qaeda-linked group.
Mortar shells hit the base in Ato, sparking a gun battle that involved the Ethiopian military and so-called Liyu special police from the country’s Somali region, the sources said.
“We are getting information that armed confrontation broke out between Al-Shabaab and the Liyu police this morning around Ato,” Mohamud Adan, a local security official in the nearby town of El-Berde, told AFP by phone.
“The terrorists fired rounds of mortar shells before the direct confrontation started,” he added.
“The forces have managed to repel the desperate terrorist attackers and there are some casualties even though we don’t have the details.”
Madker Mursal, a security commander in the Ato area, said the militants used mortar and artillery fire in the attack that lasted almost two hours, and that Ethiopian forces responded, with backup from combat helicopters.
Al-Shabaab claimed the attack in a brief statement, saying its fighters had overrun the base and killed over 100 Ethiopian police.
There was no immediate response to an AFP request for comment from the authorities in the Somali region of Ethiopia.
However, the official Ethiopian News Agency quoted Major General Tesfaye Ayalew of the National Defence Force as saying Al-Shabaab had tried to infiltrate across the border but was repulsed and had suffered heavy losses.
‘Security Buffer Zone’
On Saturday, the authorities in Somalia said they had killed more than 100 militants who had made a cross-border incursion last week.
Somali regional president Mustafe Omer said this week the authorities planned to create a “security buffer zone” outside Ethiopian territory to counter such attacks “because we cannot wait for the enemy to come to us here,” according to footage on Twitter.
Al-Shabaab has waged a bloody insurrection against Somalia’s fragile federal government for 15 years and remains a potent force despite an African Union operation against the group.
Its fighters have been ousted from Somalia’s main urban areas, including the capital Mogadishu in 2011, but continue to wage attacks on military, government, and civilian targets.
The group’s cross-border attacks follow a power shift in the troubled Horn of Africa nation, with the election in May of new President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud.
In a separate incident in southern Somalia on Friday, a local government official and his son were killed in a roadside bomb blast, police said.
The justice minister for South West state, Sheikh Hassan Ibrahim, was leaving a mosque in the city of Baidoa after Friday prayers “when the explosion ripped through his car,” local police officer Hussein Yerow said.