Fighters from the Islamist insurgent group Al-Shabaab killed at least 19 civilians in an overnight attack in central Somalia, clan leaders and local officials said on Saturday.
The attack comes two weeks after al-Shabaab, which has waged a long insurgency against the Somali state, besieged a hotel in the capital Mogadishu for 30 hours, killing 21 and injuring 117.
Sources said at least eight vehicles were traveling on a road between the towns of Beledweyne and Maxaas when insurgents intercepted them and set them on fire and killed the passengers overnight from Friday to Saturday near the village of Afar-Irdood.
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“Terrorists massacred innocent civilians who were traveling … last night. We don’t have the exact number of victims, but 19 bodies have been recovered,” clan elder Abdulahi Hared told AFP. .
“The corpses are still being collected, including women and children. They could be more than 20,” said Ali Jeyte, the governor of the Hiiraan region where the attack occurred.
“It was a horrible attack that has never happened in our region. These are innocent civilians who did nothing to deserve this,” added another local clan leader, Mohamed Abdirahman.
Al-Shabaab, in a statement, said it had targeted fighters from a local sub-clan that recently aided government forces and killed 20 “militiamen and those transporting equipment for them”, destroying nine of their vehicles.
Local fighters and security forces retook several villages from al-Shabaab in the area in late August.
President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud “strongly condemns the despicable acts of murder against innocent civilians”, the Somali presidency said on Twitter.
“The President stressed that his government will leave no stone unturned in the fight against terrorism in Somalia and the region.”
Watch | Attack on hotel in Somalia: 30-hour siege ends; Somali forces claim to defeat attackers
Ali Gudlawe, president of the state of Hirshabelle where the attack took place, issued a statement offering his condolences to the relatives of the victims and promising to continue the “clearance operations” of the Al-Shabaab area.
“The only way we have is to unite to fight and liberate our country from them. I call on society not to be discouraged,” said his counterpart from Jubaland state, Ahmed Madobe.
The al-Qaeda-linked group has been fighting Somalia’s internationally backed federal government since 2007.
He was driven out of the country’s main cities, including Mogadishu in 2011, but remains a serious security threat in large areas of the countryside.
Mohamud, elected in May after a protracted political crisis, vowed to wage “all-out war” to eliminate al-Shabaab following the Mogadishu hotel attack.
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The bloody siege has drawn international condemnation from partners including the United States, Britain, Turkey and the United Nations.
After Mohamud’s election, President Joe Biden said he would re-establish a US military presence in Somalia to fight Al-Shabaab.
The Pentagon had recommended the move, considering Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump’s rotation system to be too risky and ineffective.
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