WASHINGTON - Somali government troops and their African Union allies are preparing a large-scale offensive against al-Shabab militants, according to multiple witnesses and government officials.
Somali leaders including the president have threatened to retaliate for the truck bombing of a busy Mogadishu intersection on Oct. 14 that killed more than 300 people. Al-Shabab did not claim responsibility for the blast, but officials blamed the group and few Somalis doubt the accusation.
A resident of Somalia's Lower Shabelle region told VOA on Thursday that thousands of troops are massing in the area.
"We have seen unusual government military buildup. We have witnessed trucks carrying military supplies, technical vehicles mounted with heavy machine-guns and APCs in Afgoye," Mohamed Muse said.
A government official said another buildup is taking place around Bale Dogle airport, 90 kilometers (56 miles) northwest of Mogadishu.
"I cannot tell you more than that. But I can confirm that there will be a massive attack on al-Shabab controlled areas and strongholds involving AMISOM and other international partners," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Al-Shabab has issued no statements since the explosion in Mogadishu. Officials told VOA that according to their intelligence, the militants are forcing the owners of bulldozers to help them cut key roads and have planted landmines to hinder the progress of pro-government forces.
President seeks international support
In search of support from other East African countries, especially contributors to the AU force in Somalia, AMISOM, Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed visited Uganda, Ethiopia and Djibouti this week.
"The top leaders of the three counties I have visited have pledged a full support for our planned massive offensive against the militants." Mohamed told reporters in Mogadishu on Wednesday.
Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire is in Turkey, a strong supporter of the Somali government, to ask for financial and military support before the offensive starts.
In September, Turkey opened its biggest overseas military base in Mogadishu, where it plans to train Somali troops ahead of AMISOM's planned pullout from Somalia.
On Wednesday, Khayre met 35 Somalis injured in the Mogadishu truck bombing who were airlifted to Turkey for medical treatment.
According to a government statement, he met Turkey Prime Minister Binali Yildirim in Ankara on Thursday, discussing bilateral relations as well as regional and international issues.
20 killed in clashes
At least five people were killed and five others injured in a clash between Somali government forces and al-Shabab fighters in the Lower Jubba region on Thursday.
The fighting began when government forces attacked an al-Shabab checkpoint "where the militants used to extort money from the vehicles of the local people using the road and pastoralists," a government official said.
Meanwhile, in central Somalia, 15 people were killed and 20 others injured when militiamen belonging to Puntland and Galmudug regional states clashed in the village of Godad, 40 kilometers (25 miles ) west of Galkayo.
Regional entities often clash in Somalia in land and power disputes unrelated to the al-Shabab conflict.
Moalim Dheere Sheekh Hassan, a religious scholar and community leader in Galkayo, confirmed the clash and the casualty totals to VOA. He urged local leaders to stand and stop the bloodshed.
"It is nonsense. I call for all sides involving to stop the conflict and solve things through peaceful means," Hassan said.
Khadar Hareed and Abdiwahid Isaaq contributed to this report.