A senior Ugandan military commander is among the dead from coordinated explosions at Friday dawn at Buulo Mareer, a base in Lower Shabelle, Somalia, which left Uganda’s army top brass in horror.
Al Shabaab, the militant group that has long been mocked as a degraded force, mounted a deadly attack and overran a base of nearly 200 combat-hardened soldiers.
Kampala described as “unfortunate” and “a sad day” the attack that has killed an undisclosed number of its soldiers at a military base manned by Ugandan troops.
Uganda military commanders serving in the AU peacekeeping force have started to compile situation reports of the build-up to the May 26 ambush.
In a statement, African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (Atmis) confirmed that at around 5am, the peacekeepers’ Forward Operating Base (FOB) in Buulo Mareer, approximately 120km southwest of Mogadishu in Lower Shabelle region, was attacked by Al Shabaab militants using vehicle borne improvised explosive devices and suicide bombers.
“Fighting between the terrorists and Atmis soldiers ensued. Reinforcements from Atmis’ Aviation Unit and allies managed to destroy weapons in possession of the withdrawing al Shabaab militants,” the statement said.
The duty to explain the extent of loss of troops and military equipment in the early morning raid falls on the Ugandan Force Commander Lt-Gen Sam Okiding, who took over command on May 14.
A senior military officer who spoke to The EastAfrican on condition of anonymity said this is a raid typical of how Al Shabaab operates, which counterintelligence should be able to pick up and intercept, adding that the scope of investigations into what happened will also dwell on “the morale of troops out there”.
“There are always lapses for the enemy to exploit, and that’s what happened here,” he said.
Within hours of the attack, Al Shabaab claimed in a statement, that it had killed “Ugandan crusaders” as well as inflicted destruction and seizure of military vehicles and capture of the base’s cache of weapons and ammunition.
By press time, Uganda Peoples Defence Forces spokesman Brig-Gen Felix Kulayigye could not confirm the casualty figures, as the army leadership in Kampala was still crosschecking with Atmis headquarters for details.
“We don’t know the figure yet but it’s unfortunate,” he said.
But Strategic Intelligence Service, a site that releases counterterrorism and security intelligence alerts off its Twitter handle @CTNSIS, put the figure at more than 50 soldiers.
The attack comes a fortnight after unconfirmed reports that the UPDF lost five soldiers in an ambush in Lower Shabelle region, claims Brig-Gen Kulayigye dismissed as untrue.
The raid coming barely five weeks before Atmis undergoes another force drawdown by 2,000 troops at the end of June, is a reminder to the Somali National Army of the task that lies ahead, when it assumes all security functions once the peacekeepers exit the country at the end of December 2024.
However, Atmis says the mission remains committed in its fight against terrorism and will continue working closely with the Federal government of Somalia, the Federal Member States and other international partners in securing Somalia against Al Shabaab and other armed groups.
“Atmis would like to assure the public and all other entities in the country that everything is being done to bring the situation under control,” the peacekeeping force said, in a statement.
Lower Shabelle has become the theatre of the biggest massacre of soldiers at the hands of Al Shabaab. The region is home of Janaale, a quiet town 30km south of Buulo Mareer, which UPDF officer Col Fred K. Mwesigye described as the headquarters of al Shabaab in 2018.
“This is an enemy infested area as their headquarters is just 8km from here. I am not scaring you, but that’s the situation,” Col Mwesigye, then and commandant of the First Infantry Battalion with a forward operating base headquartered at Shalamboot, told journalists.
These FOBs in Lower Shabelle have bequeathed horror and scars on the AU troops fighting to liberate Somalia from the militants, as they patrol the roads and nearby towns to secure military supply routes and stop the threat of Al Shabaab.
The UPDF has been on the receiving end of deadly raids on its bases but none as big as the Friday attack at Buulo Mareer.
In 2015, an explosion went off at dawn in Janaale, when a suicide bomber drove an explosive laden vehicle and overran the quarter guard of the then Amisom detachment manned by Uganda troops. That attack, blamed on command and operational lapses, would leave 19 UPDF soldiers dead.
Other troop-contributing countries, Burundi and Kenya, have also suffered heavy casualties in terrorist attacks by the militants despite the efforts of international partners, including the US, European Union and the United Kingdom, to weaken Al Shabaab.
The deadly attack on Ugandan troops came a day after the US Department of State designated five key Shabaab leaders Specially Designated Global Terrorists under Executive Order 13224; they are Maxamed Siidow, Cali Yare, Maxamed Dauud Gabaane, Suleiman Cabdi Daoud, with roles that include financing and intelligence gathering and coordinating attacks, among others.
“The United States reaffirms its commitment to supporting Somalia and its East African partners in the relentless fight against the Al Qaeda affiliated Harakat al-Shabaab al Mujahideen terrorist group. By designating five key Al Shabaab leaders as Specially Designated Global Terrorists, the US Department of State aims to disrupt their operations and protect the interests of the Somali government and its people, besides stemming down threat they pose in the region,” the order said.