KAMPALA: Some 54 Ugandan peacekeepers died when militants besieged an African Union base in Somalia last week, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni said, in one of the worst recent attacks by Al Shabaab jihadists in the war-torn country.
“We discovered the lifeless bodies of 54 fallen soldiers, including a commander,” Museveni said in a Twitter post. The veteran leader was speaking during a meeting with members of his governing National Resistance Movement party, the presidency said on Sunday.
The toll is one of the heaviest yet since pro-government forces backed by the AU force known as ATMIS launched an offensive against Al Shabaab last August. It was also a rare admission of a major military death toll by African Union members.
Al Shabaab, which has been waging a deadly insurgency against Somalia’s fragile central government for more than a decade, claimed responsibility for the May 26 attack, saying it had overrun the base and killed 137 soldiers.
Al Shabaab is known to exaggerate claims of battlefield gains for propaganda purposes, and the governments of nations contributing troops to the AU force rarely confirm casualties.
The militants drove a car laden with explosives into the base in Bulo Marer, 120 kilometres southwest of the capital Mogadishu, leading to a gunfight, local residents and a Somali military commander said.
Museveni had already said last week that “some of the soldiers there did not perform as expected and panicked” as some 800 assailants attacked. That forced a withdrawal to a nearby base some nine kilometres away, he said, deploring “a missed opportunity to annihilate” the Al Qaeda-linked insurgents.
“The mistake was made by two commanders, Maj. Oluka and Maj. Obbo, who ordered the soldiers to retreat,” Museveni said on Saturday, adding that they would face charges in a court martial.
However, “our soldiers demonstrated remarkable resilience and reorganised themselves, resulting in the recapture of the base.” ATMIS has so far not disclosed how many people died, but said it sent in helicopter gunships as reinforcement after the pre-dawn raid. The United States also said it conducted an airstrike near the base a day after it was attacked.
US Africa Command said it “destroyed weapons and equipment unlawfully taken by Al Shabaab fighters”, without specifying when or where the weapons were stolen.
The attack highlights the endemic security problems in the Horn of Africa country as it struggles to emerge from decades of conflict and natural disasters.
Last year, Somalia’s President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud launched an “all-out war” against Al Shabaab, rallying Somalis to help flush out members of the jihadist group he described as “bedbugs”.
In recent months, the army and militias have retaken swathes of territory in the centre of the country in an operation backed by ATMIS and US airstrikes.
But despite the gains by the pro-government forces, the militants have continued to strike with lethal force against civilian and military targets.
Published in Dawn, June 5th, 2023