MOGADISHU, Sept 21 – Islamist insurgents battled government forces in western Somalia and at least 17 people, mainly combatants, were killed, elders said Monday, as both sides claimed victory.
The fighting broke out late Sunday when fighters from the Shebab, an Al Qaeda-inspired group that controls much of southern Somalia, attacked government forces in the town of Yet on the border with Ethiopia.
"We are getting that 17 people, mainly combatants, died in the fighting and some vehicles were destroyed," Ali Moalim Kerow, an elder in the nearby town of Rabdhure, told AFP.
A local aid worker speaking on condition of anonymity gave a similar death toll but warned that it could rise.
The Shebab claimed victory in their battle with government forces but local residents said Monday that it was unclear who controlled the town after the previous night’s fighting.
"We took control of the town after defeating the remnants of the apostate government who were planning attacks against us," Sheikh Hassan Mohamed, a Shebab commander for Hodur district, told AFP.
"Many of their dead are strewn in the streets of the town and our forces pulled out this morning," he said.
The Shebab commander said insurgent forces attacked government troops that had previously retreated from the city of Baidoa, further south, where the transitional administration’s parliament was based.
A government military official acknowledged the attack but claimed his forces had defeated the Shebab.
"They attacked us in the evening but with no success. They retreated and we killed more than ten of their fighters. Our forces are in full control of the town," Shine Moalim Nurow said.
The Shebab group and Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys’s more political movement Hezb al-Islam launched on May 7 a broad military offensive aimed at toppling Somali President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed.
One front has focused on further boxing Sharif into a tiny perimeter in Mogadishu, where he owes his survival largely to the protection of African Union peacekeepers.
The other front has pitted the insurgents against government forces and their allies on the main arteries leading from the capital to the borders with Kenya and Ethiopia.
Since Ethiopia put an end to its two-year intervention in Somalia in January, the country’s hardline Islamists have focused their rhetoric on the African peacekeepers, whom they accuse of being the foreguard of a Christian crusade.
At least 21 people, including 17 AU peacekeepers, were killed Thursday in twin suicide car bomb attacks on their headquarters at Mogadishu airport, the deadliest such attack since the AU force was deployed in March 2007.