The Guardian / UK: Witnesses have confirmed claims that Islamic militants killed dozens of Kenyan troops in an attack on a remote military base in Somalia.
A spokesman for al-Shabaab, which has been fighting an insurgency in Somalia for more than a decade, said on Friday morning that its fighters had killed at least 57 Kenyans deployed with a regional peacekeeping mission at the base in Kulbiyow, near the Kenyan border.
Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab told the Reuters news agency that the group was still pursuing “the Kenyan soldiers who ran away into the woods” after the attack.
He described how two fighters had driven suicide car bombs into the Kulbiyow base before others stormed it, killing the soldiers and seizing vehicles and weapons. “We have taken over the base,” he said.
Kenyan military officials dismissed the claims as “completely false”.
Kenya’s defence ministry said militants had attacked the base using two car bombs, but it added: “[Kenyan] soldiers repulsed the terrorists, killing scores … Currently an intensive pacification operation is under way reinforced by our air and land forces.”
Captain Nur Muhidin, a Somali national army officer stationed in Kulbiyow, said the troops spotted the al-Shabaab convoy before the attack and shelled it with mortars.
Muhidin described an intense firefight that continued for close to an hour before the militants secured the complex. He said the base had been manned by at least 120 Kenyan soldiers deployed with the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) and dozenshad been killed in the attack. Local forces were also among the casualties.
“We are yet to confirm the number of the Kenya and Somali soldiers lost in this attack. But I can say this was a disaster,” he said.
Xusen Dhere, a witness in Kulbiyow town, estimated the death toll at 40 soldiers. He said militant fighters had loaded ammunition and military equipment into lorries to drive away and had torched several trucks.
Another witness, Halima Kushow, said she saw Kenyan soldiers streaming out of the base after the militants arrived.
“It was a big fight. They started with explosions and when they [al-Shabaab] overpowered the KDF [Kenya defence forces], they entered the base and now they are controlling the camp,” she said.
“We are now hearing the roar of planes over the town here. We are frightened now so I have fled with my children out of the town because there could be a huge fight between the two sides.”
A series of attacks by al-Shabaab have underlined its resilience in the face of a decade-long effort to eradicate the group.
This week at least 28 people were killed in an attack on a hotel in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, for which al-Shabaab claimed responsibility.
Along with high-profile targets in Mogadishu and elsewhere, the group – an affiliate of al-Qaida – has launched at least four major attacks on military bases in recent years.
In January 2016 al-Shabaab said it had killed more than 100 Kenyan soldiers at their base in El Adde, near the border. The Kenyan military never gave details of casualties, but credible reports by analysts and media in the region, as well as statements by local politicians, suggested the toll may have been higher.
The group, which once controlled much of Somalia, wants to derail presidential polls currently under way, topple the western-backed government and drive out Amisom.
Repeated campaigns by tens of thousands of African Union and Somali troops, some trained by US special forces, have driven al-Shabaab from major urban strongholds and ports, but they have often struggled to defend smaller, more remote areas.
Donald Trump has yet to signal any firm direction on policy in Africa, but analysts believe the new US president will prioritise security issues, particularly the fight against al-Shabaab, al-Qaida and Isis affiliates, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria. In recent years the US has significantly increased its military and counter-terrorism presence on the continent.
The international community has pinned its strategy on successful elections for a new president and national assembly in Somalia. The poll, due to have been completed last year, has been billed by backers as the country’s first truly democratic election for decades, but it has been tarnished by delays, violence and allegations of endemic corruption.
Amisom, too, has difficulties. Last year Kenya, which contributes 3,600 troops to the 20,000-strong force, and Uganda, which has more than 6,000 troops in Somalia, threatened to withdraw their soldiers if western nations did not plug funding gaps. A number of Ethiopian troops have already been withdrawn.
The US has been conducting drone strikes and other attacks against al-Shabaab for many years. Last year one strike killed more than 150 militants at a training camp. Others have killed senior leaders.
Trump is expected to name Somalia among seven Muslim-majority countries from which refugees will be banned from entering the US.