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On the frontline: Amisom’s mother of all battles to capture Afgoye, Somalia

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Soldiers of the Somali National Army (SNA) walking at dusk under a rising crescent moon near the outskirts of the town of Afgoye, located to the west of the country’s capital Mogadishu. Picture: AFP

Soldiers of the Somali National Army (SNA) walking at dusk under a rising crescent moon near the outskirts of the town of Afgoye, located to the west of the country’s capital Mogadishu. Picture: AFP 

By NYAMBEGA GISESA

Posted  Saturday, May 26  2012 at  12:09
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On the morning of Tuesday May 22, as showers of rain bombarded Mogadishu, African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) and Somali forces loaded and oiled their guns and shared last-minute jokes as they prepared for their bravest and most dangerous mission so far.

The battle of the Afgoye corridor was a decisive one in the campaign known as ‘Operation Free Shabelle.’ Anything could go wrong. “It is a day to make heroes,” Somali National Army Deputy Chief of Staff, Brigadier General Abdi Kareem, alias Dhagabadan, told his forces.

Tall, dark, untroubled-looking Brigadier Paul Lekoch, a veteran of many wars in Uganda, with his trademark walking stick, was contingent commander.

AK-47s, grenades, rocket launchers, mortars, thousands of rounds of ammunition and over 20 tanks were assembled. The number of military vehicles sent to the war front crippled services at the Amisom and United Nations bases.

At the Aden Adde airport, run by SKA Air and Logistics Somalia, whose motto is “Doing difficult jobs in difficult times,” two of SKA’s helicopters stood by to evacuate wounded soldiers — or the dead.

Drones had observed massive positions held by Al Shabaab militants. A day before, on May 21, the Ugandan People’s Defence Force (UPDF) and the Somali forces’ 6th Brigade advanced from Daynille airstrip while the Burundian military and Somalia’s 5th Brigade moved in from the Dharkenley district, attacking the Shabaab fighters on two fronts.

“It is a force that you cannot stop,” Lieut-Col Paddy Ankunda, the force spokesperson, told me as we chatted inside an armoured vehicle on the way to the front. We were in a convoy of four heavily armed vehicles, each with three gunners on the lookout. As the vehicles struggled over the terrain, Amisom forces moved out into the bush to clear roadblocks. Others kept guard along the road behind sand bags. I could hear the distant “pop, pop, pop” of gunfire.

Although three colonels sat beside me, the empty seat that was meant for Force Commander Lt Gen Andrew Guti, who at the last minute had decided not to come, was not comforting.

This was going to be the mother of all battles. Located 31kms from the capital city, Afgoye is a strategic corridor that connects Baidoa, Joha, Kismayu and Mogadishu. Once they were chased away from the capital city, the extremists had regrouped in the Afgoye corridor .

On Tuesday morning, the AU force began its advance and seized part of Tre Disho village, 13kms from the capital.

Along the road, bodies of dead Al Shaabab fighters, military vehicles burnt to shells, and spent cartridges were evidence of the heavy fighting that had taken place just hours before.

Empty streets

I saw empty streets, buildings without roofs, walls sprayed with bullets, markets blackened by smoke from explosives and unattended donkeys.

Except for the soldiers, there was no sign of life at Daynelle Centre, a small town of a dozen or so buildings, which took three months to capture. There was no hurry at Olympic International Express, whose huge sign promised clients the fastest money transfer. The shop was closed.

Meanwhile, the Shabaab were fighting a propaganda war. Hours after the attack, Al Shabaab’s Twitter account @HSMPress tweeted that the militants had killed 27 “crusaders” at Daynelle airstrip. A day later, they said that they had captured and executed a Burundian commander.

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