Somali Islamists attack Puntland troops, several dead

AFP , Wednesday 5 Dec 2012

In Somalia's Puntland region, an area where al-Qaeda linked militants are feared to be carving out new bases, Islamist Shebab killed at least ten soldiers

Somalia's Islamist Shebab killed at least ten soldiers from the northern Puntland region, an area where the Al-Qaeda linked militants are feared to be carving out new bases, officials said Wednesday.

Khalif Issa Mudan, defence minister of the semi-autonomous region, said that ten of his troops "were killed by Shebab after a roadside bomb exploded by their vehicle" on the road to the mountainous Galgala area late Tuesday.

"We killed seven of the Shebab... and now our troops are now hunting down the others who carried out the attack," Mudan said.

The Shebab, who claimed to have also raided an army base, said they had killed 29 soldiers, with four of their own fighters killed.

"We attacked a military camp near Bossaso," Shebab spokesman Abdiaziz Abu Musab said, referring to the main port in the region.

Shebab fighters, long active mainly in southern and central Somalia, are on the back foot, reeling from a string of losses as they battle a 17,000-strong African Union force as well as Ethiopian troops and Somali forces.

But as the fighters flee a series of once powerful strongholds -- including most recently the strategic and lucrative southern port of Kismayo -- Galgala in the northern Golis mountains has provided refuge.

The Golis mountains, straddling the porous border between the autonomous state of Puntland and self-declared independent Somaliland, is honeycombed with caves and difficult to access.

The northern mountains have been under longtime control of warlord, arms dealer and Shebab ally Mohamed Said Atom, on UN Security Council sanctions for "kidnapping, piracy and terrorism."

Puntland forces battled Atom's troops in 2010-2011, damaging his militia force but failing to crush the militants, and the Shebab have since bolstered the fighters in the region.

The Shebab, who abandoned fixed positions in the war-torn capital Mogadishu last year, have also carried out a series of guerrilla attacks there, including suicide bombings.

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