, MOGADISHU, Feb 23 – Somali government forces backed by African Union troops on Wednesday launched a fresh offensive against Al Qaeda-inspired rebels, leaving at least 50 people dead nationwide, witnesses said.
"We have counted at least 20 civilians killed," Ali Muse, head of the Mogadishu ambulance service said.
Residents spoke of one dead insurgent in the capital and several said Shebab fighters had also displayed five bodies they said were dead Burundian soldiers from the African Union (AMISOM) force, bringing the toll for the capital to 26.
Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage, a Shebab spokesman, held a press conference as the bodies were displayed at northern Mogadishu’s Maslah camp.
"We send a message to the Burundian people, we say to you, you have ignored our calls but today these dead bodies are your sons and if you don’t withdraw the rest soon … many of them will be killed," he said.
The weak Western-backed transitional federal government (TFG) claimed forays into parts of Mogadishu long held by the insurgents and said its forces had captured a building the Shebab used as a base, a claim the insurgents promptly denied.
"Our national army crushed the enemy in several areas including the defence ministry building and in the Shirkole neighbourhood," Prime Minister Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed "Farmajo" told reporters in the Somali capital.
"We are going to continue fighting until we eliminate the Shebab threat from the country," he added.
The TFG\’s information ministry said Somali soldiers backed by Burundian soldiers from AMISOM seized the former defence ministry "which the extremists have been using as a logistical and operational base".
"They also captured the former milk factory and the Military Officers Club (Shirkole Officiale) in a major advance in the northwestern part of the city," the statement said.
The capture of those landmarks would mark deeper-than-usual forays into the city by pro-government forces who have mostly been confined to a small perimetre closer to the sea and tasked with protecting TFG institutions.
Somali forces also claimed to have retaken control of sections of Industrial Road, a key thoroughfare which commands access to the dense Bakara market, an area from which the Shebab launch many of their attacks.
Sheikh Ali Dhere, the Shebab\’s top spokesman, flatly denied the government\’s claim and said his fighters still controlled the former defence ministry.
"The enemy attacked the defence ministry building this morning and the neighbourhood around it," he told AFP.
"I can tell you that our mujahideen (holy warriors) still control the building," he added.
Witnesses in the area said the fighting started early in the morning and lasted for most of the day.
The Shebab, whose leaders have sworn allegiance to Osama bin Laden and has many foreigners in its ranks, controls most of the Horn of Africa country but has failed to break AMISOM defences and topple the TFG in two years of trying.
"The move into these positions is designed to inhibit the group\’s ability to hide behind non-combatants and should result in a drastic reduction of civilian casualties in the city," the information ministry said.
AMISOM and the government have come under intense criticism from the population for causing heavy civilian casualties when retaliating for Shebab mortar and artillery fire originating from Bakara.
Government forces were on the offensive elsewhere in the country.
Clashes also erupted in Beledweyn, a town close to the Ethiopian border where at least 11 combatants were killed, in villages in central Somalia’s Galgadud region and in Bulohawo in the southern Gedo region that borders Kenya, where a further 13 people, most of them fighters, were killed, residents said.
Farmajo\’s predecessor spent much of last year announcing a major nationwide offensive that would break the back of the Shebab and reconquer large swathes of the Somali territory.
It never happened but Somali forces trained in Kenya are believed to have been awaiting deployment to support a hypothetical TFG military push in the Gedo region, currently under Shebab control.