Somali government forces Monday retreated from towns and villages captured in recent months after the al-Shabab militant group carried out a deadly attack on a newly captured base in the village of Cowsweyne.
Two Somali government officials who did not want to be identified because they are not allowed to comment on sensitive military operations told VOA Somali that government troops retreated from El Dheer, Masagaway, Gal’ad and Budbud.
Without naming towns, Somali government commander Major Ismail Abdimalik said troops pulled back from some previously captured areas.
“There are small strategic retreats,” he said while defending the strategy.
The retreat followed what appears to be one of the deadliest attacks by al-Shabab on Somali government forces Saturday in Cowsweyne, where troops had initially dislodged al-Shabab on Aug. 22.
Somali government officials have avoided giving details of the attack, but multiple security sources who did not want to be identified said the two brigades that captured Cowsweyne suffered heavy losses. A local official described the attack in Cowsweyne as “painful.”
Al-Shabab released a statement claiming to have “overrun” the base, killing 178 soldiers, and capturing prisoners. That claim has not been independently verified.
An al-Shabab official in central Somalia, Yusuf Isse Kabakutukade, Monday claimed the attack on Cowsweyne was a “historic victory.”
He said Somali government leaders had underestimated the militants saying, “it’s a small group, we are going to round them up.”
He boasted that al-Shabab fighters seized a large quantity of weapons in Cowsweyne that the group can use them fight for years to come.
Somali officials said the militants attacked Cowsweyne using explosions from vehicle-borne explosive devices, or car bombs, followed by an attack by armed militants who engaged in heavy gun battles with government forces.
The state-run Somali National News Agency said government forces repelled the attack and destroyed the car bombs. But a purported al-Shabab video of the attack published Monday shows multiple dead bodies scattered in the base.
The capture of Cowsweyne, 60 kilometers northwest of El Dheer town, was part of a Somali government effort to remove the group from central Somalia and push the militants to the south.
Despite the retreat, brigades from Somali government forces are still holding the town of Elbur, which they captured on Aug. 25.
Elbur is deep inside al-Shabab territory and was one of two main targets for the government forces. The troops that were preparing to capture the second main target, Galhareri were the same two brigades attacked in Cowsweyne.
“Elbur is calm, the army is clearing it, they are ready to defend themselves,” says Abdimalik who was one of the government commanders leading the capture of Elbur.
“They are a reliable force capable of defeating against any force that attacks them. Reports suggesting they are besieged are fake,” he added.
A foreign diplomat based in Mogadishu, commenting on the attack on Cowsweyne, said he believes the military offensive will not stop.
“I think that there are some lessons to be learned, but the operations will continue,” he said. “The determination is there.”
The President of Somalia, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, has been spearheading the latest military push into al-Shabab territory. Mohamud has been in Dhusamareb, the central Galmudug state regional capital to encourage the troops and military offensive.
During a town hall meeting on Aug. 17, he said the plan is to remove al-Shabaab within five months.
He also said it will be unacceptable and disrespectful of the soldiers who shed their blood if al-Shabab were to return to towns recaptured from the group.
Al-Shabab militants have been withdrawing from towns and villages and retreating into the bush with the intention of a prolonged guerrilla war.