Somali cattle herder describes US airstrike on al-Shabaab training camp.
‘It was like a burnt house. Al-Shabaab fighters were collecting dead bodies’
Islamist group confirms attack but says death toll of 150 is exaggerated
A local cattle herder has given the first eyewitness account of the US airstrike on an Islamist militant training camp in Somalia that killed scores of fighters.
Pentagon officials claimed that more than 150 members of the al-Shabaab militant group were killed in the surprise raid by planes and unmanned MQ-9 Reaper drones near Raso over the weekend. The al-Qaida linked group confirmed the airstrike but rejected the death toll as exaggerated.
Bashir Dhure, a herder living nearby, said the camp had been set up in a new and secret location in an attempt to avoid Somali and western intelligence, but was targeted on Saturday night.
“There were big explosions,” he told the Guardian. “All nearby places were caught on fire and no one knew what was happening. In the morning I could see the smoke coming from the bombarded training facility.
“It was like a burnt house. Everything turned burnt. I saw three vehicles burnt down. Al-Shabaab fighters were collecting dead bodies. They were put on trucks and took out of the village. We do not know where they were buried,” he said in a telephone interview.
Following the airstrike, angry al-Shabaab fighters started searching for what they termed spies collaborating with Americans, Dhure continued.
They detained about a dozen people, mostly young camel herders living in two nearby villages, Eel Dibi and Raso, about 125 miles north of the capital, Mogadishu.
“I was lucky as I fled from the area before they started the search operation, because I knew that there would be a harsh backlash by al-Shabaab after they were bombed by the Americans.”
The Raso training facility hosted about 200 to 300 newly recruited fighters, he added. “At least half of these fighters were killed.”
Abdiasis Mohamed Durow, district commissioner in Buloburte, put the death toll even higher. “I have confirmed that this was a heavy and deadly bombardment,” he said.
“This time al-Shabaab lost about 200 fighters, among them five top commanders who were at the training camp to witness the closing of the training of the newly recruited militants.”
He named two of the commanders as Yusuf Ali Ugaas, an influential preacher, recruiter and regional head, and Mohamed Mire, a leading member of the group’s finance wing. “We have confirmed that these two figures, Yusuf Ali Ugaas and Mohamed Mire, went to attend the closing of the training and they were killed,” Durow said.
Durow said the Somali government welcomed the killing of the militants because “they were planning to attack key installations in Somalia. They were planning to wage deadly attacks on Mogadishu and Kismayo where the US government has set up a drone base.”
The US continues to pour military power, money and training into the Horn of Africa nation, seen as a crucial front in the war on terror. Ali Abdurahman, a senior Somali intelligence officer in Hiiraan region, said: “On our side we have helped the US in gathering the information before the airstrike.
This is very important in such operation because we knew that the militants were in their latest stage of attacking key places in Somalia.”
But al-Shabaab disputed the death toll. Abdiaziz abu Mus’ab, a military spokesman for the group, said: “There was an airstrike by the Americans against the mujahideen in Somalia. We strongly reject the number of deaths claimed by the Americans. They usually exaggerate when they do something against us.
“There are a few of our fighters who were martyred but never the number they claimed.”
US military officials say they had been monitoring the camp for several weeks before the strike and had gathered intelligence, including about an imminent threat to US forces and African Union peacekeepers.
The commander ultimately responsible for the airstrike, General David Rodriguez of the US Africa Command, indicated to a Senate panel in Washington on Tuesday that the Raso training camp was one of several that al-Shabaab maintains in Somalia.
“The camps are transitory, so they pop up and they move,” Rodriguez told the Senate armed services committee.
The Pentagon on Tuesday continued to say little about the strike but nevertheless expressed confidence that it killed “more than 150 terrorist fighters” and no others, according to spokeswoman Michelle Baldanza.
Yet Baldanza said US defence officials “continue to assess the results of the operation”, making early conclusions preliminary. Baldanza said there was no certain date as yet for the completion of any post-strike assessment but thus far “we have no reports of civilian casualties from these strikes”.
She continued: “We have significant mitigation measures in place within the targeting process and during the conduct of operations to reduce the potential risks of collateral damage and civilian casualties.”
Al-Shabaab, which seeks to impose its strict version of Islamic law, controlled Mogadishu until 2011, when African Union forces drove it out. But in the past two weeks al-Shabaab fighters have launched mortar attacks near the presidential palace, blown up a car bomb near a busy park in the capital, and set off twin blasts in a north-western town. Dozens of people have been killed.
Analysts warned that al-Shabaab has proved resilient in the past and, despite the unusually high death toll at the Raso camp, is likely to recover. J Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center in Washington, told the Associated Press: “That al-Shabaab had that many recruits in training at just one location … is a worrying indicator of the group’s continued relevance and its power to attract.
“The fact that al-Shabaab feels emboldened enough to gather so many together in one place, these are hardly signs of a group on the run.”
Robert Besseling, an analyst with EXX Africa, added: “While the killing of some 150 al-Shabaab fighters, if confirmed, will be a blow to the group, it is unlikely to have fatally struck its fighting capability within Somalia.
“Further US airstrikes alone are also unlikely to thwart al-Shabaab’s offensive around Mogadishu and other areas where the group has expanded its operations such as northwards into Galmudug and Puntland.”