At least 50 people, including three senior military officers, were killed Thursday when al-Shabab attacked a military base in the semi-autonomous Puntland region, military officials and witnesses told VOA. Those sources said the dead include at least 45 Puntland soldiers and five al-Shabab militants.
The Puntland security minister, Abdi Hirsi Ali, has disputed reports of heavy military losses. He told reporters that most of the casualties are civilians.
The assault started with a heavy gun battle that ran for more than two hours, according to witnesses in the village of Af-Urur in the Bari region.
“Our forces are at the receiving end of a heavy attack. I’m on my way now. The communication is down, so I can’t tell you more,” the regional commanding officer, Colonel Abdullahi Omar Anshour, told VOA as residents reported plumes of smoke rising over the base.
Al-Shabab militants claimed to have overrun the base, killing more than 61 Puntland soldiers, although a Puntland military source told VOA their forces retreated from the camp for “tactical reasons’ before launching a counter-assault and retaking it.
The militants destroyed part of the base and burned dozens of military vehicles, witnesses said. Witnesses also told VOA that more than 20 soldiers wounded in the attack were transported to a nearby Armo town.
Af-Urur is a camp for a contingent of the Darawish, a paramilitary force in Puntland that has been fighting al-Shabab in the Galgala Mountains. The militant group attacked the same camp in January this year when the regional forces fiercely defended it killing nine militants.
Puntland is relatively stable region compared to the southern and central parts of Somalia. But the regional forces have not been able to completely wrest the Galgala Mountains from an al-Shabab force reported to number several hundred fighters.
Security officials in Somalia believe Galgala serves as a strategic link for al-Shabab connecting militants in southern Somalia with al-Qaida militants in Yemen.