Militiamen allied with Somalia's weak transitional government have taken control of a border town from Islamist militants after several hours of fighting that killed scores of people, officials said Saturday.
Al-Shabab fighters were forced early Saturday to abandon their positions in Belet Hawo, a town which borders Kenya, said Sharif Abdiwahid Sharif Aden, a spokesman for the pro-government militiamen. The Islamist militants have recently repelled two previous attempts to drive them out of the town.
"We have chased them to an area 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of the city," Aden said, noting that dozens of militants were killed during the fighting that lasted more than three hours.
President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed said that neighboring Ethiopia had provided logistical support for pro-government forces.
"Our Somali troops have fought the enemy in Belet Hawo and defeated them," Ahmed said in a news conference at the presidential palace. He denied that Ethiopian troops entered Somalia.
The city was in the hands of Islamists since 2009, but has also briefly changed hands several times.
Mohamud Sayid Aden, a Somali member of parliament who was with the militiamen who took the town, said his side lost five soldiers, while al-Shabab lost 42 of its fighters.
Al-Shabab officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
Residents in Belet Hawo said they had seen over a dozen dead bodies lying in the streets, but could not say to which side they belonged. Reached by phone, they declined to be identified for fear of reprisal attacks.
Belet Hawo's capture is part of an ongoing government-led offensive aimed at ending Islamist militants' grip on large swaths of the country's south and central regions.
The government has been promising a full-scale war against militants for years, but coordination among its poorly trained, seldom-paid government forces has delayed that push.
At least 43 Burundian and 10 Ugandan troops have been killed since Feb. 18, when the offensive against Islamists started in Mogadishu, two Nairobi-based diplomats told The Associated Press on Friday, citing information from people involved in the operation.
The two spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.
Wafula Wamunyinyi, the second-highest ranking official on the African Union's commission for Somalia, declined Saturday to discuss casualty figures, saying the issue is "sensitive" and that their families and troop contributing countries should be informed first before officially releasing it.
Also Saturday, the AU force propping up Somalia's government said it killed suicide bombers riding in a jeep who tried to attack its base at the former defense ministry building in the capital, Mogadishu.
"The sentries manning the base identified and destroyed an insurgent vehicle that was fast approaching the base from the Industrial Road in the northwest of the city," said the force in a statement.
Somalia has been mired in conflict since 1991, when warlords toppled the country's last central government and then turned on each other.
Malkhadir M. Muhumed contributed to this report from Nairobi, Kenya.