MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Somali militants launched an offensive on border towns in southern Somalia, killing government troops, residents and officials said on Friday.
In what Western powers considered a strategic victory, government troops and African peacekeepers last month drove the al Qaeda-allied al Shabaab rebels out of the capital Mogadishu, as the group suffered from internal divisions, a reported lack of combatants and funding shortages.
But the insurgents' latest assault shows they remain capable of launching major attacks for territorial gains at a time when aid groups are struggling to help more than 1 million Somalis struck by famine in southern and central Somalia.
Early on Friday the rebels entered Dhobley, near the Kenyan border, from three directions, attacking government troops and an allied militia known as the Raskamboni, a resident who fled the fighting said from Kenya.
"It was morning when al Shabaab attacked us from different directions ... I have seen 13 dead bodies mostly from the Raskamboni. We can say al Shabaab is now fully in the city, and the casualties may be more than that," officer Mohammed Wardhere told Reuters from the border.
A few hours later, residents said the Somali military regained control of the town.
"A more serious fight took place hours after government troops regrouped. However, al Shabaab is not far and fighting may restart at any time," resident Abdiqader Saciid said by telephone.
Al Shabaab said it lost six fighters and killed 40 government soldiers.
KENYAN MILITARY DEPLOYS
Just 5 km (3 miles) away, hundreds of Kenyan security forces backed by armored vehicles and helicopters deployed at the porous frontier, as bodies lay on the ground at the scene of the battle across the border.
"We have a strong force spread along the long stretch of the border with Somalia where fighting has been reported. No militia has managed to enter the country," said Kenya's northeastern provincial police commander Leo Nyongesa.
Yusuf Dhere, a resident of the Kenyan border town of Liboi, said he saw wounded Somali troops being brought into the hospital. "We are still collecting and transporting more wounded people from the border, where we can hear artillery."
Somali troops, with logistical and intelligence support from Kenya and Ethiopia, regained control of towns along the border with both neighbors earlier this year, but the insurgents have vowed to strike back.
Although they gave up most of the bases in Mogadishu, al Shabaab retain control in two city districts.
The failure of government and peacekeeping troops to seize the momentum, push them out completely and establish effective control has raised fears it is only a matter of time before the militants return in full force to the capital.
In the nearby southwestern region of Gedo, some parts of which are in the hands of the rebels, a clash between troops and militants killed 24 on Thursday, a government official said.
"Al Shabaab killed 10 of our soldiers in an ambush on Thursday. They hit us with artillery, " Mahmoud Ali Shire told Reuters from the border town of Dolow.
"The ambush turned into hand to hand fighting and we killed 14 fighters from al Shabaab," he added.
An al Shabaab spokesman said five of their men had been wounded and said dozens of government troops were killed.
"We ambushed the government convoy. We seized and fought them seriously and we captured machineguns and small arms from them. We will continue fighting until we remove them from Gedo region," Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab told Reuters.
(Reporting by Feisal Omar and Ibrahim Mohamed in Mogadishu and Sahra Abdi and Nour Ali in Nairobi; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; editing by Richard Lough and Janet Lawrence)