Islamist militants in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, launched a pre-dawn raid on African Union peacekeepers Friday, triggering fierce fighting that killed more than 20 people. Meanwhile, government-led military efforts to take control of insurgent-held towns in the country's central and southwestern regions have reportedly suffered setbacks.
As Somalis prepare to observe the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, al-Shabab and Hisbul Islam rebels appeared to have made good on their vow to mark the start of Ramadan with intensified attacks against the government and the African Union mission in Mogadishu known as AMISOM.
Residents in Mogadishu say hundreds of Islamist insurgents, led by al-Shabab, fired weapons and mortars at an African Union base in the south of the city. AU peacekeepers and government troops fought back with tank fire and mortars, sending residents diving for cover in their homes and in the streets. The fighting quickly spread to several districts in south Mogadishu.
Al-Shabab is an al-Qaida-linked extremist group that controls vast areas of southern Somalia. It is on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations, and on Friday, Australia put the group on its terrorism list following the discovery of a suicide attack plot linked to the group.
For nearly two years, al-Shabab spearheaded efforts to expel Ethiopian troops from Somalia. Since Ethiopia's withdrawal in January, al-Shabab began cooperating with another Islamist group called Hisbul Islam to topple the U.N.-backed, but weak transitional federal government, and to force more than 5,000 AU peacekeepers from Uganda and Burundi to abandon their mission. Hundreds of foreign extremists are also believed to be taking part in the fighting.
Recently, AMISOM has begun taking a more active role in the conflict, patrolling far beyond their bases, and at one point, fighting alongside government forces.
On Thursday, Hisbul Islam spokesman Muse Abdi Arale said militants had repelled an alleged AMISOM incursion deep into a rebel-held area.
Arale says AMISOM troops turned around and returned to their bases.
AMISOM denied the claim, saying it had a routine patrol.
Meanwhile, more clashes have been reported in the central Hiran region, where government forces are reported to have suffered setbacks in recent days.
At least 15 people were killed and 19 wounded Thursday during heavy fighting that began after government troops attempted to seize the town of Bula Burte from al-Shabab. Witnesses there say al-Shabab fought off the offensive, but Bula Burte remains tense.
Separately, Islamist rebels re-took control of the western part of the strategic town of Beledweyne from government troops. Hisbul Islam left western Beledweyne, near Somalia's border with Ethiopia, late last month without a fight. But the group said it had only made a tactical retreat and had vowed to take it back.
The government was embarrassed recently when Somali soldiers in Beledweyne held a violent demonstration demanding to be paid. It is not clear if the incident is in any way related to the government losing control of Beledweyne. But residents say hundreds of Ethiopian troops have poured into the eastern part of town to set up military bases.
There has been no comment from the Somali government about the alleged arrival of Ethiopian troops. Ethiopia has denied persistent reports that Ethiopian troops are actively engaged in Somalia's civil war.
On Thursday, government and pro-government forces suffered similar losses in Somalia's southwestern Gedo region. Hisbul Islam re-took the town of Luq from government troops, and al-Shabab re-captured a town it lost to an armed pro-government religious group called Ahlu-Sunna Wal-Jama'a two days ago.
Ahlu-Sunna Wal-Jama'a is a Sufi Muslim group that took up arms against al-Shabab last year. But Somalis say some of its members are believed to be Somali factional leaders with close ties to Ethiopia.