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Al-Shabaab attacks AU base in Somalia, casualties reported

Burundian soldiers are part of the African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia . ©AFP

Mogadishu (AFP) - Heavily armed Al-Shabaab jihadists stormed an African Union (AU) base in Somalia on Tuesday, triggering a fierce firefight that caused casualties on both sides, military officials and witnesses said.

AU forces dispatched helicopter gunships after the pre-dawn car bomb and gun attack on a camp housing Burundian peacekeepers near Ceel Baraf, a village some 160 kilometres (100 miles) northeast of the capital Mogadishu, the sources said. 

A high-ranking Burundian military officer told AFP that about 30 soldiers were killed and another 22 wounded, while a dozen were missing.There was no confirmation about the toll from Somali or AU officials.

"There was heavy fighting and casualties inflicted on both sides, but we don't have more details about this incident so far," local military commander Mohamed Ali told AFP by phone. 

"They launched the attack with a car bomb blast before a heavy exchange of gunfire broke out," he added.

Al-Shabaab, which has been waging a deadly insurgency against Somalia's fragile central government for more than a decade, claimed responsibility for the assault.

It was the first such major attack on a peacekeeping base since the AU Transition Mission in Somalia ATMIS) replaced the previous AMISOM peacekeeping force on April 1.

There has been no comment from ATMIS or the central government on the attack, which comes with the country locked in a deep political crisis over delayed elections and facing the threat of famine.

The Burundian military source said about 400 Islamist fighters stormed the base after blowing up two car bombs.Burundian soldiers then retreated to a nearby hillside where they continued to fight, supported by drones and helicopters. 

The jihadists said in a statement they had taken control of the camp and claimed to have killed 173 African Union soldiers.

Al-Shabaab also released a video showing bodies of what appeared to slain soldiers lying on the ground, according to the SITE Intelligence Group that monitors extremist organisations. 

The death toll claims and the video could not be independently verified.

'Blasts and machinegun fire'

"Al-Shabaab gunmen stormed the camp early morning, there were heavy blasts and exchanges of machinegun fire.The Burundians vacated the camp and entered Ceel Baraf village before helicopters arrived providing aerial support," said one witness, local resident Weliyow Maalim.

"The helicopters fired missiles and heavy machineguns, we saw smoke rising over the camp but we don't know about the situation exactly," said another witness, Ahmed Adan.

In September 2015, at least 50 African Union troops were reported by Western military sources to have been killed when Al-Shabaab fighters overran a military base in Janale, southwest of Mogadishu.

In October 2011, Al-Shabaab claimed to have killed more than 70 Burundian peacekeepers in battle and laid out dozens of bodies in military uniform in one of their strongholds outside Mogadishu. 

At the time the African Union said it had lost about 10 soldiers, and dismissed the militants' claims as a stunt.

ATMIS -- made up of troops from Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda -- has the task of helping Somali forces take primary responsibility for security in the troubled Horn of Africa nation.

Under a UN resolution approving its creation, ATMIS is projected to gradually reduce staffing levels from nearly 20,000 soldiers, police and civilians to zero by the end of 2024.

Al-Shabaab fighters controlled the seaside capital Mogadishu until 2011 when they were driven out by AU troops.

But they still hold territory in the countryside and frequently attack civilian, military and government targets in Mogadishu and elsewhere. 

The latest assault comes less than a week after parliament chose new speakers for the upper and lower houses -- a key step on the path towards a long-delayed presidential vote.

The drawn-out election process has been marred by deadly violence and a bitter power struggle between the president and prime minister.

Somalia's international partners have voiced fears the delays were distracting from its myriad problems including the fight against Al-Shabaab and widespread drought which has left millions facing hunger.

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