MOGADISHU, Somalia – Heavily armed al-Shabab extremists have stormed a military base in Somalia's semiautonomous state of Puntland, killing close to 70 people, officials said Thursday.
Officials called it the region's deadliest attack in years, highlighting the twin challenges facing security forces from the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab and the growing presence of fighters linked to the Islamic State group.
The attack began with a blast at the remote Af-Urur camp, roughly 100 kilometers (62 miles) west of the commercial hub of Bossaso, before the extremists overran the base and killed soldiers at close range, said Ahmed Mohamed, a senior military official.
Close to 70 people were killed, though an exact death toll was not yet available, Mohamed said.
Residents in the area reported chaotic scenes, with fighters beheading several civilians they encountered. One witness, Abdibasit Hassan, said women were among those beheaded.
"The situation is grim over there. This attack was an unexpected one," Mohamed said. The extremists, including suicide bombers, reportedly attacked the base from three directions, forcing soldiers to retreat.
Col. Hashi Ahmed, a senior military official, told The Associated Press that reinforcement troops reached the area and drove the extremists out of the camp. He estimated that at least 100 fighters were involved in the attack.
Al-Shabab claimed killing at least 61 soldiers in the attack. The SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist groups, said the extremist group issued the claim via its Shahada News Agency. Al-Shabab also said it seized a large amount of weapons and ammunition and more than a dozen military vehicles.
Puntland in northern Somalia also faces a growing threat from ISIS-linked fighters who have split from al-Shabab.