A government military base in south Somalia was struck by car bombs and gunfire on Wednesday, residents and military officers said, with the al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab group claiming responsibility and saying dozens of soldiers died.
One military officer said the bombs exploded outside the base after troops behind sandbags fired at them during the mid-morning attack in Awdheegle, an agricultural district along the Shabelle River, 70 km (43 miles) southwest of the capital Mogadishu.
"There are casualties from al Shabaab and government forces but we have no exact figure. Al Shabaab cut off some of the private telecommunications," added Captain Hussein Ali, a military officer in another town in the same region.
Al Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it had killed 50 soldiers and two of its fighters had died.
"Two mujahideen driving two car bombs, one after the other, entered the Somali base in Awdheegle district today. We killed 50 government soldiers and burnt their vehicles," said Abdiasis Abu Musab, al Shabaab’s military operation spokesman.
The jihadist group and government officials tend to give sharply differing casualty figures for attacks.
Another military officer, who declined to be named, confirmed the attack but could also not give details on the casualties.
Last week, Somali government forces had captured most parts of Awdheegle district.
"We heard two huge blasts and gunfire from the direction of the Somali military base. I saw several soldiers running away from the base to escape but we cannot know how many were killed," elder Aden Abdullahi told Reuters.
Al Shabaab is fighting the weak, U.N.-backed Somali government and its international allies in a quest to impose a strict interpretation of Islamic law.
It was forced out of the capital Mogadishu in 2011 and has since lost most of its other strongholds. But it remains a threat, with fighters frequently carrying out bombings in Somalia and neighbouring Kenya, whose troops form part of an African Union-mandated peacekeeping force.
Somalia has been riven by civil war since 1992, when clan-based warlords overthrew a dictator, then turned on each other.
Shopkeeper and mother-of-four Halima Farah told Reuters from Awdheegle that government troops were in control of the town after the attack. "We have now come out of the houses," Farah told Reuters by phone. "Today was the worst day for this town.
"We believe both the militants and government suffered great losses of lives today but we cannot see their casualties. Stray bullets killed people in their houses," she added, saying a relative of hers died after being hit in the head.