Some 54 Ugandan peacekeepers died when militants besieged an African Union base in Somalia last week, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said, in one of the worst recent attacks by Al-Shabaab jihadists.
“We discovered the lifeless bodies of 54 fallen soldiers, including a commander,” Museveni said in a post on his official Twitter account late Saturday.
Al-Shabaab, which has been waging a deadly insurgency against Somalia’s fragile central government for more than a decade, claimed responsibility for the attack on May 26, saying it had overrun the base.
The militants drove a car laden with explosives into the base in Bulo Marer, 120 kilometres (75 miles) southwest of the capital Mogadishu, leading to a gunfight, local residents and a Somali military commander told AFP.
The toll is one of the heaviest yet since pro-government forces backed by the AU force known as ATMIS launched an offensive last August against Al-Shabaab.
It was also a rare admission of a major death toll among the military.
Museveni had already said last week that an initial panicked reaction to the attack contributed to the toll.
“The mistake was made by two commanders, Maj. Oluka and Maj. Obbo, who ordered the soldiers to retreat,” Museveni said in the statement, adding that they would face charges in a court martial.
However, “our soldiers demonstrated remarkable resilience and reorganised themselves, resulting in the recapture of the base.”
AU forces sent in helicopter gunships as reinforcement after the pre-dawn raid although it did not disclose how many people had died.
Al-Shabaab is known to exaggerate claims of battlefield gains in propaganda, while the governments of nations contributing troops to the AU force rarely confirm casualties.
The 20,000-member ATMIS force has a more offensive remit than its predecessor, known as AMISOM.
The force is drawn from Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya, with troops deployed in southern and central Somalia.
Its goal is to hand over security responsibilities to Somalia’s army and police by 2024.
– Counteroffensive –
Last year, Somalia’s President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud launched an “all-out war” on the militants, rallying Somalis to help flush out members of the jihadist group he described as “bedbugs”.
In recent months, the army and militias known as “macawisley” have retaken swathes of territory in the centre of the country in an operation backed by ATMIS and US air strikes.
A day after the attack in Bulo Marer, the US said it conducted an airstrike near the base that was attacked by the group.
US Africa Command said it “destroyed weapons and equipment unlawfully taken by Al-Shabaab fighters,” without specifying when or where the weapons were stolen.
Despite the gains by the pro-government forces, the militants have continued to strike with lethal force against civilian and military targets.
In the deadliest Al-Shabaab attack since the offensive was launched, 121 people were killed in October in two car bomb blasts at the education ministry in Mogadishu.
In a report to the UN Security Council in February, UN chief Antonio Guterres said that 2022 was the deadliest year for civilians in Somalia since 2017, largely as a result of Al-Shabaab attacks.