Somali officials and residents say al-Shabab militants shot and killed at least 21 travelers in the country's central region of Hiran on Friday night.
Speaking to VOA, Mahas District Commissioner Mumin Mohamed Halane said the killings occurred in the outskirts of Beledweyne, a town around 300 km north of Mogadishu.
“The militants ambushed the travelers in nine vehicles, indiscriminately opened fire on them and killed 18 civilians,” Halane told VOA Somali over the phone.
“Three more civilians died when improvised explosive device apparently planted by the militants targeted their vehicle in the same area,” he added.
He said the victims were drivers and local civilians heading to his town, Mahas, around 90 km from Beledweyne, Hiran's capital.
"Al-Shabab is targeting civilians because they are in a desperate situation and want to make the locals surrender. That will never happen. We will fight with them to our last drop,” Halane said.
Local elders who saw the bodies of civilians told VOA on condition of anonymity that most of the victims had gunshot wounds to the head.
One elder said the militants first indiscriminately fired a volley of shots at the travelers' vehicles, forced the surviving passengers out and shot them dead, leaving their bodies on the roadside.
The elders said during the attack the militants burned trucks laden with relief food.
A government statement posted on the website of the state news agency, Sonna, confirmed that al-Shabab fighters had burned trucks carrying relief food to Mahas and "killed most of the people on board the vehicles."
In the statement, the government has condemned the al-Shabab attacks on civilians. “We condemn the heinous and cowardly attacks in which the al-Shabab militants are targeting civilians, while they wouldn’t dare to face our brave soldiers and the locals who organized themselves to defend from the aggression of al-Shabab,” the statement said.
The “Somali National Army will retaliate with its own punitive military measures,” the statement concluded.
Al-Qaida-affiliated al-Shabab immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, saying its fighters targeted self-organized, pro-government local militias known as Ma'awisley.
Al-Shabab faces tougher military operations
In July of this year, the Somali government sent troops, heavy weaponry, and ammunition to the region to fight al-Shabab alongside local Ma'awisley — anti-al-Shabab self-defense militias raised by local communities and pastoralists to protect themselves from what has been called “al-Shabab predation and extortion.”
The fighting in the region then escalated, as al-Shabab fighters trying to cross into neighboring Ethiopia were pushed back from the Ethiopian border to central Somalia, prompting more Somali government forces and local militia operations against the militants.
The head of the Somalia National Army (SNA), Brigadier General Odowa Yusuf Rage, who is leading the military operations in the region, said the operation was “a new beginning to eliminate al-Shabab.”
“We need to continue to put pressure on al-Shabab with the support of the local people who have been suffering from the remorseless actions of the militants. Now, they are on the run and desperately trying to hide,” Rage said.
“Residents and civilians in this region were angered by militants’ extortion demand and their other inhumane actions. We are here to support them in their self-defense fight,” he noted.
He was referring to what al-Shabab calls zakat, or Islamic tax, which the group imposes on people’s property and livestock to generate funds for the terrorist group’s operations and recruitment.
Somali Prime Minister Hamza Abdi Barre, who visited the region, pledged continued support of government troops and the local militia fighting al-Shabab in the region.
“We encourage you to continue your offensive against al-Shabab. And we pledge a continued support to stand with you in this fight for your liberation,” the prime minster said.
In August, the U.S. African Command [AFRICOM] said in a press release it struck al-Shabab terrorists who were "actively attacking Somali National Army forces" in a remote location near Teedaan, in the Hiran region, killing 13 al-Shabab terrorists.
In retaliation, al-Shabab militants have launched numerous deadly attacks on civilians, in the Hiran and Galgudud regions of central Somalia.
This week, the militants destroyed local water sources and telecommunications towers in the Galgadud region, according to officials and residents.
During the attack, which happened just before midnight on Wednesday in the Adado district's Adakibir area, the militants bombed water wells, local water reservoirs and mobile phone masts, local officials told VOA Somali.
“The terrorist group al-Shabab has attacked villages and people living in the rural areas, destroyed drinking wells and telecommunication towers, to starve communities already facing severe drought,” said Mohamed Abdullahi Muse, the chairman of nearby Bahdo town.
Speaking on condition of anonymity to VOA, a villager who witnessed the incident said the militants hurled hand grenades into the wells, and they used mines to take down telephone towers.
Muse said the militants often target water sources and other vital civilian infrastructures whenever they face military pressure from local militias and Somalia’s federal government troops.
“Galgudud is one of the drought-affected areas in the country, where accessibility of water has already been difficult. This al-Shabab damage to water sources would inevitably aggravate the living conditions,” Muse said.
Three weeks ago, the militants destroyed similar water wells and telecommunication towers in villages and localities in the Hiraan region's Matabaan and Mahaas districts.
According to government officials and local leaders, al-Shabab fighters abducted civilians, stole livestock, and committed arson in attacks that caused residents of entire villages to flee their homes.
During the attacks, the extremist group burned homes in raids on villages.
Al-Shabab’s latest attacks on civilians in central Somalia come as nearly half of Somalia’s estimated population – 7.8 million people – are affected by the worst drought in four decades and are now bracing for a fifth consecutive failed rainy season over the coming months.
The United Nations estimates 1 million Somalis have been displaced by the drought, and more than 213,000 people face life-threatening, catastrophic food insecurity.
According to The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, a top United Nations relief official, Martin Griffiths, is now visiting Mogadishu to shore up humanitarian operations.
Al-Shabab Kills 21 in Somalia’s Hiran Province