115 die in gov't offensive on Somali militants
MOGADISHU, Somalia – A government offensive against al-Qaida-linked militants largely subsided Sunday as officials said that at least 115 people had been killed since the violence started several days ago.
Ali Muse, the chief of the Mogadishu ambulance service, said that 49 civilians had died and 157 had been wounded since the government launched the operation Wednesday.
In addition, at least 60 militants have been killed along with six peacekeepers, according to Biyereke Floribert, a spokesman for the Burundian peacekeepers who are serving in the African Union force backing the Somali government.
Muse said heavy fighting had subsided but sporadic gunfire still could be heard. The militants were regrouping to plan retaliatory attacks but "we are ready for them," Floribert said.
Al-Shabab has pledged allegiance to al-Qaida and controls much of the capital, and southern and central Somalia.
On Sunday, al-Shabab spokesman Sheik Ali Mohammed Rage also threatened neighboring Kenya for allegedly helping Somali government troops and their allies attack the militants' bases.
The militant group includes veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts who have trained Somalis in tactics like suicide bombs and sniper fire. The group carried out a double suicide bombing in Uganda in July that killed 76 people.
Somali civilians have borne the brunt of two decades of conflict in their country. In November, the ambulance service said that more than 4,200 bystanders have died in warfare over the last two years.
The country's weak U.N.-backed government has long promised a full-scale war against militants, but coordination among its poorly trained government forces has held up that push.
Somalia's Defense Minister Abdihakim Fiqi said late Saturday that government forces and their allies are making progress in the offensive.
"The operations we started will continue until we defeat the enemy and we will not repeat the past mistakes in which territories reclaimed by our armed forces were abandoned," he said.
Abdirizak Qeylow, spokesman for Somalia's Ministry of Information, said that government troops already have captured several rebel-held positions.
The Somali government said earlier in the week that 17,000 African Union and Somali troops are involved in the assault to reclaim territories held by al-Shabab starting with the capital, Mogadishu.
Meanwhile, relative calm had returned to the northern Kenyan town of Mandera, which borders the Somali town of Belet Hawo, after stray bullets and artillery fire had crossed to the Kenyan side.
Earlier in the week, one woman died and 17 other Kenya-Somalis in Mandera were wounded after they were hit by stray bullets from the fighting in Belet Hawo between militia and government troops, according to Kenya Red Cross spokesman Titus Mungou.
Mungou said the ominous calm has allowed Red Cross officials to start the registration of refugees fleeing Somalia.
Associated Press Writer Tom Odula in Nairobi, Kenya contributed to this report.