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Mystery Illness Kills 3 Burundian Peacekeepers in Somalia

Three Burundian soldiers attached to the African Union's peacekeeping force in Somalia have died of an unknown illness and 18 more from the same unit are in the hospital in Kenya with the same symptoms.

Officials at the African Union say 21 Burundian peacekeepers were evacuated to neighboring Kenya earlier this week after they fell ill and began showing similar symptoms.

Three of the soldiers have died from the illness and the remaining 18 are still in a hospital in Nairobi. Their symptoms and conditions have not been released to the media.

The African Union says a medical team has been sent to the Somali capital, Mogadishu, to find out what might have caused the illness among the 2,000 Burundian soldiers deployed there. The Burundians and another contingent of troops from Uganda make up the 4,300-member peacekeeping force in Somalia, known as AMISOM.

Five months ago, Burundi lost 11 peacekeepers in a devastating insurgent attack on their compound in Mogadishu. African Union officials declined to say whether they believe foul play was involved in causing the deadly illness among the Burundian soldiers.

Since the first group of Ugandan soldiers arrived in Mogadishu in March 2007, Somalia's al-Qaida-linked militants, al-Shabab, and other insurgent groups have repeatedly targeted AMISOM troops, accusing them of being an army sent by the West to prop up Somalia's weak transitional government. Al-Shabab controls large parts of southern Somalia and views AMISOM as the biggest obstacle in its quest to take full control of the capital.

AMISOM has largely remained neutral in the conflict in Somalia, in line with their mandate that limits them to keeping key sites in Mogadishu, including the presidential palace, and the main airport and seaport from falling into insurgent hands. But earlier this month, AMISOM troops angered al-Shabab when the peacekeepers openly fought alongside government forces in street battles and forced the militants to retreat from several districts.

In the latest round of violence, witnesses in Mogadishu say hundreds of heavily armed insurgents attacked positions held by government soldiers and AMISOM troops late Wednesday, triggering a firefight that spread to three districts in Mogadishu and continued until early Thursday morning. More than a dozen people were reported killed and as many as 60 others were wounded.

Heavy fighting also erupted for the second day in the central Galgadud region between al-Shabab and a pro-government religious group called Ahlu-Sunna Wal-Jama'a.

An al-Shabab spokesman, Ali Dhere, told reporters in Mogadishu that Ahlu-Sunna started the fight by attacking an al-Shabab base in the region.

Dhere says al-Shabab defended the base and achieved "a great victory over the infidels".

But witnesses say the fighting is still continuing with both sides taking heavy casualties.

"Infidels" is a reference to Sufi Muslims, who make up Ahlu-Sunna Wal-Jama'a. Al-Shabab follows the Salafist/Wahabist tenet of Islam. Sectarian tensions between the two Islamic factions have been escalating since late last year.

In January, al-Shabab lost control of two key towns in Galgadud to Ahlu-Sunna Wal-Jama'a. The two groups have been battling ever since for control of the region.