Al-Shabab militants attacked convoys carrying Ethiopian soldiers in Somalia’s southwestern Bakool region early Sunday, Somali officials said.
The ambush targeted two convoys, one traveling from the Somali town of Yeed to Wajid and the second convoy as it traveled from El Barde to the town of Huddur. Ethiopian troops have bases in Wajid and Huddur.
A Somali official said local forces were accompanying the convoy that was en route to Huddur from El Barde.
The mayor of Huddur, Omar Abdullahi Mohamud, told VOA Somali that the fighting started after the al-Shabab ambushes.
“The fighting started after the anti-peace elements attacked the Ethiopian and Somali military convoy moving towards Wajid and Huddur, starting off their attack with explosion,” Mohamud said. “The troops have repulsed, and the situation is calm.”
Mohamud claimed the militants lost as many as 50 fighters.
A senior Somali regional official who asked not to be identified told VOA Somali that the more intense ambush targeted Ethiopian troops escorting military supplies to Ethiopian soldiers in Wajid.
He said when that convoy left the town of Yeed on Saturday, it spent the night near the village of Booco, about 40 kilometers north of Wajid.
“At dawn the convoy resumed its journey towards Wajid but were ambushed by al-Shabab,” he said.
“We heard two vehicles were hit by explosions.”
He said the fighting lasted for hours.
Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the ambush. Al-Shabab in a statement claimed it killed 167 Ethiopian soldiers, destroyed military vehicles, and seized a cache of weapons and ammunition. Casualty figures given by both sides have not been independently verified.
Meanwhile, Ethiopia’s ambassador to Somalia, Mukhtar Mohamed Ware told VOA he saw al-Shabab’s claim on social media and described it as “propaganda.”
“They may try [to attack Ethiopian forces] but they cannot even fire for more than 10 minutes against Ethiopian defenses’ forces,” he said.
“This is a professional army; it’s a very well equipped, very well organized, it’s always hitting hard when it comes to al-Shabab, so this is a mere propaganda; it’s not more than a propaganda against Ethiopia and against Ethiopian defense forces.”
He rejected al-Shabab’s statement, which labeled Ethiopian troops as “crusaders.”
“We are not crusaders; we are there under the African Union and international community decisions to support legitimate government of Somalia in its effort to establish peace in this country. So, this is a mere propaganda blown by al-Shabab that is commonly known.”
Ethiopia has thousands of troops in Somalia serving as part of the African Union Transition Mission, or ATMIS, and other forces in Somalia that are there based on arrangements with the government in Mogadishu.
A security source told VOA the ambushed troops were not part of ATMIS.
“The ambush is true, the incident was bad, but the numbers given by al-Shabab have been exaggerated,” the source said.
Meanwhile, Somali officials have reported that government troops have captured the main town of Ba’adweyne and the three smaller villages of Qodqod, Qay’ad, and Shabelow.
Local forces commander Mohamed Nur Ali Gadaar told VOA that al-Shabab fled Ba’adweyne and two of the villages after a brief firefight on Sunday. Government troops supported by local fighters are now heading toward a fourth town, Amaara, in Galmudug state, he said.
The Somali government also reported conducting an operation in collaboration with “international partners” near the village of Ali Foldhere in the Middle Shabelle region on Saturday and Sunday against al-Shabab militants who have been trying to cross a river.
The role of international partners in the ongoing operations has been limited to airstrikes against al-Shabab fighters and vehicles.