The bodies of dozens of Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) soldiers killed by al-Shabaab a week ago in Somalia will be flown home this week, the military has said, without specifying the day.
The militants attacked and overran a UPDF Forward Operating Base (FOB) in Buulo Mareer on May 26.
Following days of silence and lingering questions about the battlefield situation, President Yoweri Museveni on Saturday said Uganda lost up to 54 soldiers, the worst in the record of its Somalia mission.
UPDF first deployed in Mogadishu in March 2007 under a United Nations-authorised African Union peacekeeping Mission in Somalia (Amisom), now the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (Atmis), to which Uganda remains the largest troop contributor.
“Our soldiers demonstrated remarkable resilience and reorganised themselves, resulting in the recapture of the base,” State House in a statement quoted Museveni as having told a retreat of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party caucus at the National Leadership Institute Kyankwanzi (Nali).
He added: “We discovered the lifeless bodies of 54 fallen soldiers, including a commander [Lt Col Edward Nyororo].”
The President said two other commanders he named as Oluka and Obbo, both at the rank of major, had been taken into custody, pending their trial at the General Court Martial for allegedly ordering soldiers to withdraw instead of repulsing the attackers.
It remained unclear what the officers, one of whom the President previously named as Maj Okia, before re-identifying the suspects as Oluka and Obbo, would be charged with.
In a statement shared on Twitter on May 27, a day after the attack, Museveni noted that “some of the soldiers did not perform as expected and panicked, which disorganised them, and the al-Shabaab took advantage of that to overrun the base and destroy some of the [UPDF equipment]”.
“The panic,” he wrote, “it seems, was totally unnecessary because, in fact, both the anti-tank ditch and our soldiers had destroyed the three vehicles of explosives outside the FOB.”
It remains unclear why the troops, armed with two t-55 tanks, 14.5mm anti-aircraft guns and 107mm Katyusha rocket launchers, escaped to another UPDF base nine kilometres away.
Under Section 29 of the UPDF Act, a person subject to military law, who displays cowardice in action, including running away or inciting others to run away from the enemy, if convicted of the offence of cowardice in action, suffers death or life imprisonment.
The Monitor could not establish when the trial of Maj Obbo and Maj Oluka would start.
In an interview on Sunday, UPDF spokesperson, Brig Felix Kulayigye, said the bodies of the slain soldiers would be flown back into the country this week.
“The process of informing the next of kin [of the deceased soldiers] is going on,” he told Monitor by telephone.
Under Uganda’s agreement with AU, the next-of-kin of a soldier killed in action is compensated up to $50,000, meaning the continental bloc and the European Union, which picks such bills, is likely to pay close to $2.7 million for the 54 soldiers Uganda lost late last month.
Highly-placed security sources told Monitor that al-Shabaab, after capturing Buulo Mareer, ringed it off with explosives, delaying UPDF’s re-entry into the base during a counter-offensive.
The raid prompted the United States Africa Command (Africom), which provides technical and intelligence support to Atmis, pounded neighbourhoods of the FOB in strikes it said targeted and destroyed some of the Al-Shabaab’s war loot, including weapons.
The UPDF Land Forces Commander, Lt Gen Kayanja Muhanga, who is leading a Board of Inquiry established by Chief of Defence Forces Gen Wilson Mbadi, flew to Somalia a day after the raid for a fact-finding mission during which he has sought to lift the morale of soldiers on the ground.
In Kampala, President Museveni had said the Buulo Mareer was being manned by a company, a military formation of 200-250 soldiers, at the time of the attack.
They fled when overwhelmed by al-Shabaab, he noted. The militants in what Kampala dismissed as propaganda had claimed that it killed 137 UPDF soldiers and captured others.
Military sources said that the militants had also attempted another attack on a UPDF base in Baraawe, Somalia, but the Ugandan soldiers repulsed them.
Monitor has learnt that soldiers injured during the May 26 raid were receiving treatment in Nairobi, Kenya, and Somalia.
The Al-Shabaab used vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) and suicide bombers to breach the defences at Buulo Mareer base at dawn, prompting Ugandan and Somali security chiefs to ban night movement of vehicles on Afgoye-Barawe highway in Lower Shabelle.