MOGADISHU, (Reuters) – Islamist insurgents briefly seized control of Somalia’s biggest military airfield on Friday and looted weapons, witnesses and an Islamist commander said.
Muktar Ali Robow, leader of the al-Shabab rebel militia, told a local radio station his forces also captured government troops during the raid on Baledogle, about 100 km (60 miles) west of the capital Mogadishu. “We seized Baledogle airport, took supplies of arms and also captured some Somali soldiers but we released them,” Robow told Shabelle Radio by telephone from an undisclosed location.
Residents said Islamist fighters armed with machineguns and rocket-propelled grenades took control of the airfield before breaking into two armouries and leaving. “They seized the airport and killed three soldiers. We saw them taking government weapons with them and burning two battlewagons,” resident Ali Aded Diriye told Reuters by phone.
Somalia’s interim government and its Ethiopian military allies have faced an Islamist-led insurgency since it routed a sharia courts group from Mogadishu at the start of last year.
Robow also told Shabelle that al-Shabab fighters killed 11 government troops in separate clashes in central Somalia’s Hiran Province on Thursday. That could not be immediately verified.
Also known as “Abu Mansoor”, Robow was the Islamic Courts’ deputy defence secretary before the movement that ruled Mogadishu and most of south Somalia for six months was ousted. His al-Shabab has since spearheaded an Iraq-style insurgency, waging regular roadside bombings, grenade attacks and ambushes targeting Somali government and Ethiopian forces.
Fighting in Mogadishu alone killed 6,500 people last year, according to a local human rights group that tracks the toll.
Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been forced to abandon their homes and livelihoods in what the United Nations calls Africa’s worst humanitarian crisis.
In more bloodshed, two people died when four suspected insurgents opened fire with pistols at a restaurant in the central town of Baidoa, which hosts Somalia’s parliament. Witnesses said the restaurant owner and a waiter were killed.
A Baidoa police official, Abdulahi Aden, said the owner of the business had been working as an undercover security agent. Somalia has been mired in anarchy since warlords toppled military dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. The interim government’s attempts to restore central rule have largely been paralysed by infighting and the Islamist-led insurgency.