By Abdi Sheikh and Feisal Omar
Mogadishu – Al Qaeda-linked militants overran an AU peacekeepers' camp in the centre of Somalia, a security source and the group said on Tuesday, in what appears to be one of the al-Shabaab group's biggest attacks this year.
A resident said three civilians died in crossfire during the attack. The number of AU soldiers killed or captured is unclear.
The chairperson of the AU commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, said he paid tribute to the Burundian peacekeepers who lost their lives, but did not say how many died.
Somalia is preparing to hold long-delayed presidential elections with political rivalries having split the security services, distracting them from the fight against the al Shabaab insurgency.
Somalia's presidency condemned the attack on the AU Transition Mission in Somalia (Atmis) base near El Baraf, about 130km from the capital, Mogadishu, and called for increased military support.
“The mujahideen launched a pre-dawn raid on an Atmis military base in El Baraf,” an al Shabaab statement said. “After a fierce fire fight, the mujahideen managed to overrun the base and are now in complete control of the entire military base.”
Al-Shabaab has been fighting for years to topple the central government and implant its rule in the country based on its strict interpretation of sharia (Islamic law).
A video shared on social media appeared to show people looting a military base and equipment consistent with AU forces. A fighter carrying the black flag of al-Shabaab was seen standing on top of a burnt-out armoured personnel carrier within a military camp.
Another still photo appeared to show part of the blood-soaked body of a soldier with “Burundi” written on his uniform.
The authenticity of the images has not been verified.
Mohamed Nur, a resident of El Baraf, said he saw two helicopters shooting as they whirred overhead.
“We were awoken by huge blasts early in the morning. The blasts were at the African Union mission base. A heavy exchange of gunfire followed,” he said.
Farah Hussein, a shopkeeper in El Baraf, said he also saw helicopters. “We heard some gunshots and sounds of weapons being fired from the helicopters,” he said.
“The Atmis forces are also in the jungles pursuing the al-Shabaab fighters. So far we know three civilians died and five others were injured in the fighting.”
Local officials in the Shabelle region and the AU mission did not respond to requests for comment on the attack.
Last month al-Shabaab attacked the country’s main airport in Mogadishu.
It has previously overrun AU bases. In 2016, al-Shabaab said it had killed more than 100 Kenyan soldiers in El Adde, near the border with Kenya. The Kenyan government has never revealed the number of casualties.