At least 25 people were killed on Wednesday when hundreds of Islamist insurgent fighters briefly seized a town in a region of northern Somalia that is usually relatively peaceful, an official said.
Islamists temporarily seized the town of Gal Gala, which is 25 miles (40 kilometers) southwest of the port of Bosasso, the commercial hub of the semiautonomous northern region of Puntland, said Puntland's minister of security, Gen. Yusuf Ahmed Khayr. He said the government regained control of the town.
Puntland is relatively peaceful compared to south-central Somalia and foreign aid workers and businessmen are usually able to operate there. This is the first attack of this scale in Puntland this year, although the region battled Islamist militants in its mountainous region last year.
Khayr said five soldiers had been killed in the morning attack on the town. Another official said earlier that nine had been killed. He asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press. The reason for the discrepancy was not immediately clear.
Both agreed six insurgents had been killed during the initial attack when Islamists ambushed a government patrol by firing rocket propelled grenades at their vehicles. But government forces launched a counterattack and killed fourteen more insurgents when they regained the town, Khayr said.
It was impossible to verify his account because the town's mobile phone network was not operating.
The insurgents are led by Sheik Ali Gamey, linked to arms dealer Mohamed Atom, who the U.N. accuses of supplying weapons to Somalia's al-Shabab militia in the south. The town used to be a base for Atom's fighters.
Gamey was a member of al-Itihad, an Islamist group active in Somalia in the 1990s. Puntland police arrested him last year but he was later freed on bail.
Somalia has not had a functioning government for more than 20 years. The current phase of the civil war pits Islamist insurgents against a weak U.N.-backed government, but the conflict is complicated by clan loyalties, corruption and the involvement of regional rivals Ethiopia and Eritrea.