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Al-Shabaab claims capture of major militant base

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • Islamist fighters claim they have overtaken a large militant base
  • Somali officials warn that Islamist rebels may intensify attacks this weekend
  • Al-Shabaab rebels have been fighting Somali forces for years

(CNN) -- Somali Islamist fighters on Saturday claimed they captured the largest Mogadishu base for the government-supported militant group.

However, Sheikh Shuriye, spokesman for the Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama militia, told CNN that his group retreated from the Mo'alin Nor base on Friday as a "military tactic" against Al-Shabaab, an al Qaeda-linked movement fighting against Somalia's transitional government.

Meanwhile, Somali Information Minister Abdirahman Omar Osman denied reports that African Union troops fought Al-Shabaab for nearly a week to maintain control of Mekke Al-Mukarama street -- a strategic roadway in the Somali capital and the only road connecting the presidential palace to the airport. Osman said the road has been in complete control of the government and the African Union forces.

Still, medical sources reported 10 fatalities from the fighting, including at least four civilians, and 20 others wounded.

Al-Shabaab, which has pledged allegiance to al Qaeda, controls much of southern Somalia and portions of Mogadishu. Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama, which follows the Sufi form of Islam, turned against it after Al-Shabaab fighters destroyed the tombs of several revered leaders of the Sufi Muslim group in 2008.

Earlier, a Somali official denied reports that Ethiopian troops had crossed into the country to help battle Al-Shabaab militants.

"I can confirm to you that no Ethiopian soldier has come to this town of Dolo," said Gov. Abdifatah Gesey of the Bay region in Somalia's southwest. "The reports which are saying so are mere rumors."

Gesey spoke to CNN on the phone Friday from Dolo, a Somali town bordering Ethiopia. Dolo is under the control of government forces, the governor said.

Ethiopian Communications Minister Bereket Simon also denied the reports, saying Sunday, "At this point, I know there is no decision on our part to cross the border into Somalia. We believe the toppling of the TFG (Somali transitional federal government) will not happen."

Somali government officials warned Friday that Al-Shabaab may intensify attacks against civilians and security forces over the Ramadan period.

Osman, the Somali minister of information, said government and African Union forces are prepared for any assaults. He urged residents to be vigilant and remain indoors.

The African Union Mission in Somalia, known by the acronym AMISOM, has forces made up of troops mostly from Uganda and Burundi and is helping the Somali government fight the militants.

Al-Shabaab rebels have killed at least 70 civilians and wounded 200 others this week, the minister said.

Government forces have killed 25 Al-Shabaab fighters since Monday, according to Osman.

The United States considers Al-Shabaab, which is al Qaeda's proxy in the country, a terrorist organization. Al-Shabaab is waging a war against Somalia's government in an effort to implement a stricter form of Islamic law known as sharia.

Somalia has not had a stable government since 1991, and fighting between the rebels and government troops has escalated the humanitarian crisis in the famine-ravaged country.

Journalist Mohamed Amiin Adow and CNN's Les Neuhaus contributed to this report.