Somali government troops backed by African Union peacekeepers on Saturday recaptured the key port of Merka from al Shabaab insurgents, just one day after the Islamists swept into the city, the army and residents said.
“The Somali forces and AMISOM peacekeepers secured control of Merka again and now the situation has returned to normal,” a Somali military official, Abdirisak Mohamed, told AFP by telephone from Mogadishu.
“There was brief exchange of gunfire, but the (Shabaab) militants have fled.”
He said “several” Shabaab fighters and one Somali soldier were killed in the clashes, and “the security forces are now conducting clearing operations inside town.”
A resident reached by telephone said the AU force, known by its acronym AMISOM, used tanks to recapture the port, and four civilians were killed after they were caught in the fighting.
“Four people died in our neighbourhood and two others were wounded, I can see AMISOM and Somali troops returned to the city now and they are conducting security operations”, Muhidin Osman said.
AU troops had fled the city, the state capital of Lower Shabelle, as heavily armed Shehab fighters swept in with black Islamist flags on Friday, residents and local authorities said, in one of the most dramatic reverses for the multi-national force in its nearly decade-long battle against the al Shabaab.
– Falsehoods in the media’ –
However the head of AMISOM, Mozambican Francisco Madeira, on Saturday denied that the African Union force had ever lost control of the town.
“It is.. a falsehood that Marka has either been captured or re-captured by Al Shabaab,” he said in an AMISOM statement.
Speaking of “falsehoods in the media” he explained that the AMISOM troops in Marka were merely “undertaking a re-adjustment of their position,” to Marka Ayub, about a kilometer from their previous position.
The decision was taken due to “tactical considerations,” Madeira said.
Residents said earlier Saturday that the Shabaab had begun imposing Sharia law on the city.
The Al Qaeda-linked Shabaab said on its website that one of its leaders, Sheikh Mohamed Abu-Abdallah, addressed hundreds of people gathered at the regional government headquarters in Merka after the seizure on Friday.
“The enemy has lost and running away, they are fleeing from the Islamic regions,” it quoted him as saying.
The historic port, some 100 kilometres (60 miles) south of the capital Mogadishu, was captured in August 2012 by African Union troops after four years under Islamist control.
– Bomb brought down plane –
Meanwhile the Somalian government said that a bomb caused a deadly explosion that ripped a hole in the fuselage of a passenger plane shortly after it took off from Somalia’s main airport on Tuesday.
The authorities had initially attributed the blast, which killed one passenger to sudden air decompression.
There has been no claim of responsibility yet for the attack.
The Shabaab are fighting to overthrow the internationally-backed government in Mogadishu, which is protected by 22,000 AU troops.
The group has lost ground since being routed from Mogadishu in 2011, but continues to stage regular shooting and suicide attacks, and in recent months has staged a series of brazen raids on AU bases.
Last month they stormed a Kenyan army base at El-Adde in southwest Somalia, in the latest incident of an AMISOM base being overrun, before retreating.
In September, Shabaab fighters stormed a Ugandan AMISOM base in Janale district, southwest of Mogadishu in the Lower Shabelle region.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, speaking at an AU summit last month, called for more “resources for the forces in Somalia so that AMISOM can have robust power on land, air and the sea.”
AU troops have been hampered by a lack of air power — including attack helicopters — leaving their bases often isolated and supply lines vulnerable to attack by Shehab gunmen controlling surrounding rural areas.