At least 20 pro-government fighters have been killed in fierce battles with Al-Shabaab jihadists in central Somalia, local militia commanders and a clan elder said Thursday.
The fighting erupted on Wednesday after the national army and allied local clan militias launched an offensive in an area of Galmudug state known as Shabelow forest controlled by the Al-Qaeda-linked group.
Somali Information Minister Daud Aweys confirmed the clashes and said more than 100 Al-Shabaab fighters had been killed, but did not give a death toll among pro-government ranks.
The internationally-backed central government launched a major offensive against Al-Shabaab last year, but in September, it admitted “several significant setbacks” and called for a three-month pause in a planned drawdown of African Union troops backing the Somali army.
“There was heavy fighting in the Shabelow area which lasted more than 10 hours. Twenty-eight fighters, most of them from the local community fighters, were martyred and others wounded,” Abdiaiz Hasan, a local militia commander, told AFP by phone.
“The fighting stopped but there is still tension and enforcement is going on in the area,” he added.
Minister Aweys said at a press conference in the capital Mogadishu that the joint forces had succeeded in overrunning Al-Shabaab forest hideouts and that more than 100 militants had been killed.
“The army and the local community fighters supporting them are now in the final stages of eliminating the remnants of the kharijites in Shabelow forest,” he said, using a government term for Al-Shabaab that means “renegades” in Somali.
Adan Moalim Abdirahman, a traditional elder in Dhusamareb, the capital of Galmudug state, said he had information that up to 30 members of the army and militias had lost their lives.
“We are in control of the contested areas and there is aerial bombardment targeting the hideouts of the terrorists. They will soon be eliminated,” added Mohamed Ayanle, another local militia member, giving a death toll among allied ranks of more than 20.
It is not possible to independently verify the death tolls because of the security situation in Somalia, where Al-Shabaab has been waging a bloody insurgency against the government for more than 15 years.
President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud took office in May last year, vowing “all-out war” against the militants, who have carried out numerous deadly attacks in Somalia but also neighboring countries including Kenya.
His government launched a major offensive against the Islamists in August last year, joining forces with local clan militias known as macawisley and backed by AU troops and US air strikes.
Although pro-government forces have dislodged Al-Shabaab from many of its strongholds in central Somalia, the group has recently retaken some lost territory and continues to carry out deadly attacks.