MOGADISHU, (Reuters) – At least 19 people have been killed in violence involving the militant al Shabaab rebel group since Sunday afternoon, Somali government officials and residents said on Monday.
Al Shabaab, the main rebel group, which Washington says is al Qaeda’s proxy in Somalia, hit the African Union peacekeeping mission’s (AMISOM) main base in Mogadishu with twin suicide car bombs on Thursday, killing 17 peacekeepers.
Late on Sunday the Islamist group seized control of a town on the border with Ethiopia from government forces after clashes that killed at least 14 people.
Residents said militiamen of the Ethiopian rebel group the Ogaden Liberation Front (OLF) helped al Shaabab drive out government forces from Yeed town in the Bakool region.
“Al Shabaab and OLF militias took Yeed town from us,” Abdi Mohamed, Bakool region’s governor, told Reuters by phone.
“They also crossed the border and looted property from an Ethiopian mining company. At least seven soldiers died on our side and 11 were wounded. We also killed many al Shabaab fighters.”
The international community is trying to bolster President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed’s U.N.-backed government, which until this week controlled only four districts of Somalia’s coastal capital Mogadishu. Most of the country is in the hands of al Shabaab and allied groups.
Yeed resident Nur Mohamud said the fighting in his town started on Sunday afternoon and intensified in the evening. There were at least 14 dead bodies lying on roads and in alleys, mostly dressed in government uniforms, he said.
“We have destroyed the enemy’s base from where they used to attack us,” Sheikh Hassan Maalim Takow, an al Shabaab commander, told Reuters. “From our side, four people died and of course some were injured, but to us that is not a loss.”
In the southern village of Qoryole, a farmer detonated a hand grenade and killed himself and two al Shabaab gunmen who had seized him.
“They had ordered the farmer to show them where some weapons had been buried but he said he was not aware. Another farmer who was also arrested is missing,” farmer Farah Ali told Reuters.
Elsewhere, al Shabaab fighters shot dead two demonstrators protesting the arrest of three religious leaders in Wanlaweyn, 90 km (56 miles) south of the capital. “They picked three sheikhs from a mosque and people demonstrated violently against al Shabaab. The protesters threw stones at the fighters who then opened fire indiscriminately,” Osman Olad, a local elder, told Reuters.
Western security agencies say Somalia, which has been torn by civil war for the past 18 years, has become a haven for militants plotting attacks in the Horn of Africa and beyond.
The United Nations has said it is investigating a lead that the vehicles used in last week’s suicide bombing at the AU base in Mogadishu could have been from an Eritrean peacekeeping mission.