A failed offensive by Somalia's strongest insurgent group has left at least 20 people dead as the Islamist group attempted to recapture a district in southwestern Somalia from government forces, an official and a witness said Friday.
The attempt by al-Shabab, an al-Qaida-linked Somali militia, to win back a district near Kenya's border left 12 people injured, said local resident Osman Gelle. Gelle said the violence, which started Thursday afternoon, was the worst he had seen in more than a year.
Somali government forces took over the Beled-Hawa district last Sunday in an offensive launched to take back areas held by militants. Al-Shabab militants took control of the area in Jan. 2009 after Ethiopian troops, who had entered to support Somalia's transitional government, withdrew from Somalia. The militia group briefly lost control of the town in Aug. 2009 to Ahlu Sunna Waljamea, a moderate Islamist group allied to the government.
Most of Somalia's southern and central regions are controlled by militant groups, the most powerful being al-Shabab. Somalia's weak U.N.-backed government controls only a small section of the capital Mogadishu, including the sea port and the airport.
Colonel Barre Aden Shire, a commander of the pro-government force in Beled-Hawa, claimed victory over al-Shabab during Thursday's overnight battle, and said the majority of those killed during the fighting were militia members.
"The enemy forces attacked us in large numbers trying to recapture the town," he said. "We briefly retreated out of the town to minimize the civilian casualties and counterattacked them, we finally defeated them."
Calls to al-Shabab leaders for comment went unanswered.
There are 7,100 African Union peacekeepers stationed in Mogadishu to protect the small enclave where the Somali government operates.
The country hasn't had a functioning government since 1991, and the militants hope to overthrow the transitional government and install a harsh brand of Islam across the country.