Somalia’s hardline Islamists said they fought intense battles Saturday with government and African Union troops in the central Hiran region that left 18 people dead on both sides.
Shebab spokesman Abdulaziz Abu Musab told AFP the deaths occurred after the group’s fighters attacked a base of the AU force in Buloburde town, some 200 kilometres (125 miles) north of the capital Mogadishu.
The casualties could not be immediately confirmed, but the Al-Qaeda-linked extremists said the dead included five of their own men.
The government said six Shebab had been killed, but gave no figures of any casualties on their side.
“Nine soldiers with the African Union, four of their Somali counterparts, and five mujahedeen from our Shebab were killed in the fight,” Musab said.
Fighting began around midnight Friday, lasting about four hours into Saturday morning, he said.
“Our fighters went into the camp, that is where the killing took place,” Musab added.
Troops from the 22,000-strong AU force captured Buloburde from the Shebab earlier in the year, but the Islamists control large parts of the rural area surrounding the town.
Somalia’s Information Minister Mustafa Duhulow praised the security forces for repelling waves of attacks by Shebab fighters.
“Al-Shebab tried to come back several times in order to take their dead bodies, but they were defeated on all attempts,” he said.
– Shebab journalist ‘killer’ arrested –
The Shebab continue to launch attacks in the heart of Mogadishu — including recent brazen commando raids on the presidential palace and parliament — in a bid to topple the internationally backed government.
The latest fighting comes amid growing warnings of a humanitarian crisis in the war-torn country, three years after more than 250,000 people, half of them children, died in a devastating famine.
The United Nations has warned that Somalia is sliding back into an acute hunger crisis, with more than 350,000 people in Mogadishu in need of food aid and parts of the city facing emergency levels just short of famine.
The Shebab, who once controlled most of southern and central Somalia, have been driven out of positions in Mogadishu and Somalia’s major towns by the AU force.
The UN-mandated force is widely expected to launch a fresh push in coming weeks to seize the last few major settlements still in Shebab hands in southern Somalia, especially the port of Barawe.
Also on Saturday, Somalia’s government said that a journalist accused of killing colleagues and working for the Shebab has been arrested in Kenya, and would be extradited to Mogadishu.
Several journalists have been killed in recent years in Somalia, one of the most dangerous countries in the world to work as a reporter.
“As a result of surveillance by the Somali security apparatus, the Kenyan security forces captured Hassan Hanafi Haji, wanted for the killing of a number of Somali journalists and other citizens,” Information Minister Duhulow said in a statement.
“It is also alleged that he was also deeply involved in Al-Shebab’s propaganda machine,” Duhulow added, claiming that Hanafi was a “senior” member of the Islamist group.
The Shebab, who operate their own radio station and regularly release propaganda videos, were previously active on Twitter before their accounts were shut down.