REPORTING FROM JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA -- A Somali militia linked to Al Qaeda claimed Thursday to have killed dozens of African Union soldiers in fighting in Mogadishu and displayed the bodies on the outskirts of the war-torn capital.
If the claim is confirmed, it would represent the largest loss for the 9,000-member AU mission in Somalia since it began in 2007. And it would serve as a blunt warning of the Shabab militia’s capabilities, even as Kenyan soldiers press into its stronghold in famine-ravaged southern Somalia.
In recent months, the Shabab has been pushed out of much of Mogadishu by forces of the African Union and the weak, Western-backed transitional government. But this month it claimed responsibility for a suicide attack at a government compound that killed more than 80 people. Among them were students waiting for exam results that could have meant scholarships to study in Turkey.
The African Union force, made of up soldiers from Uganda and Burundi, is in Somalia to protect the transitional government. The AU did not confirm the killings Thursday.
Shabab spokesman Ali Mohamed Raghe held up the small wooden crosses and Bibles of the dead, claiming they were Burundian troops.
Photographs circulating on the Internet showed the corpses of several dozen men in uniform laid out on the ground, surrounded by a crowd. Some appeared to have machetes or large knives embedded in their bodies. Others had suffered gunshots. Some were missing their boots. In one photo, a young man holding a pistol stands over a body.
The photographs were posted on the website of pro-Shabab Mogadishu radio station Radio Al Furqaan. The Shabab claimed to have killed 70 AU soldiers, but the number of dead was not clear.
One witness reported counting 63 bodies, said the Agence France-Presse news agency.
“I have counted 63 Burundian soldiers, all of them dead,” AFP quoted Hasan Yunus as saying. “Al Shabab brought them on trucks to Alamada,” a Shabab-controlled area about 10 miles outside Mogadishu.
Another witness quoted by the news agency, Ahmed Jama, said some of the bodies were dragged around by angry residents.
-- Robyn Dixon