Somali regional forces in Puntland have clashed with pro-Islamic State militants in the country's northeast in the first-ever military confrontation between security forces and pro-Islamic State fighters.
Local sources told VOA that today’s fighting occurred near Bashashin village, just 50km west of Qandala after the regional troops were halted by landmines.
Governor of Puntland’s Bari region Yusuf Mohamed Dhedo who is leading the offensive against Qandala confirmed the fighting to VOA Somali in an exclusive interview via satellite phone.
Dhedo said that his forces were attacked by IS fighters while they were dismantling the landmines.
“They planted a landmine in a narrow road where vehicles do not have a space to move off the road,” he said.
“We tried to remove the mines then we received gunfire, we responded killing seven militants, three of our soldiers were wounded in the firefight.”
Dhedo said his troops have custody of militants’ bodies, saying, “They are all Somalis.” He said they have not seen any foreigners so far.
Villagers reported sporadic gunfire ongoing between the troops near Bashashin and Karin villages.
Dhedo said he is “certain” that the security forces offensive will succeed and he will be in Qandala within the next 24 hours.
Pro-IS militants captured Qandala, 80kms east of Bosaso port town, without a fight on October 26 and hoisted their flag atop the historic headquarters of the district commissioner built by Italian colonists. All residents of the town have fled according to officials.
“Our plan is to liberate the town and to help the people of the town return to their homes,” he said.
Asked about the size and strength of the pro-IS militants, Dhedo replied, “We don’t have numbers but they have heavy weapons including [Russian-made] PKM machine guns, bazookas and small arms such as AK-47.”
He said his troops will pursue the militants to their training camps and hideouts in the mountains near Qandala.
He dismissed criticisms that his administration may have taken the threat from the group lightly as they recruited and trained in the mountainous area in Bari region without interference from the authorities.
“That is not true, these are guerrilla men they live in the mountains, we wanted them to gather their force in one identifiable spot. We have that today,” he said.
“We want to weaken their power, it will be meaningless if we liberate Qandala and then leave, and we have strategic military objectives."
Pro-IS militants split from Al-Shabab in October last year. Al-Shabab eliminated IS sympathizers in the southern regions of the country but has so far failed to suppress the faction that is active in Puntland.