The United States military has said it killed 27 al-Shabab fighters in Somalia’s central Hiran region, where the country’s army and allied forces have launched an offensive against the group in the last month.
In a statement on Wednesday, the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) said it carried out an air strike against al-Shabab fighters who were attacking Somali military forces near the town of Buulobarde on September 18.
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AFRICOM said no civilians were injured in what was “the largest combined Somali and [African Union Transition Mission in Somalia, ATMIS] offensive operation in five years”.
The US has been carrying out air strikes in Somalia against al-Shabab, an armed group linked to al-Qaeda, for years.
Sunday’s strike in Buulobarde, about 200km (125 miles) north of the capital, Mogadishu, was the sixth recorded so far this year, according to the AFRICOM website.
Residents of the Hiran region say al-Shabab’s torching of houses, destruction of wells and killing of civilians, combined with demands for taxes amidst the worst drought in 40 years, has pushed locals to form paramilitary groups to fight alongside the government.
Earlier this month, al-Shabab fighters killed at least 19 civilians and destroyed trucks delivering food aid in an attack in the area.
Ali Abdulle, a community leader in the town of Beledweyne, told The Associated Press news agency by phone that al-Shabab had made life for residents so miserable they had to fight back.
“Al-Shabab has burned our villages, blown up our wells and boreholes, destroyed telecommunication towers, planted IEDs [improvised explosive devices] and murdered civilians indiscriminately,” he said. “So there is no option left except to face them.”
Al-Shabab has battled Somalia’s central government for more than a decade in its push to establish its own rule based on a strict interpretation of Islamic law.
An ATMIS spokesperson and Somalia government officials did not respond to requests for comment from the Reuters news agency about Sunday’s air strike.
ATMIS has not publicly acknowledged any role in the operation, which one local elder said had captured 10 villages from al-Shabab in recent weeks.
Rights activists have previously accused Washington of shrouding its Somalia operations in secrecy, potentially undermining accountability for incidents involving civilian deaths.
In April, US lawmakers put forward legislation to prevent civilian harm during US military operations and increase transparency around such incidents.
The bills would require the Pentagon to improve investigations into civilian deaths, establish a database for such probes and create a centre to advise the US government on “best practices for preventing, mitigating, responding to civilian harm”.
The legislation also calls for an unclassified report on how the US Department of Defense “distinguished between combatants and civilians in United States military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen since 2001”.