Fifty-four Ugandan peacekeepers died when militants besieged an African Union base in Somalia last week, Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, has said, in one of the worst recent attacks by al-Shabaab jihadists in the war-torn country.
“We discovered the lifeless bodies of 54 fallen soldiers, including a commander,” Museveni said in a Twitter post late on Saturday.
The toll is one of the heaviest yet since pro-government forces backed by the AU force known as ATMIS launched an offensive against al-Shabaab last August. It was also a rare admission of a major military death toll by African Union members.
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 26 May, saying it had overrun the base and killed 137 soldiers.
Al-Shabaab is known to exaggerate claims of battlefield gains for propaganda purposes, and the governments of nations contributing troops to the AU force rarely confirm casualties.
The militants drove a car laden with explosives into the base in Bulo Marer, 75 miles south-west of the capital, Mogadishu, leading to a gunfight, local residents and a Somali military commander told AFP.
Museveni had said last week that “some of the soldiers there did not perform as expected and panicked” as they came under attack from about 800 assailants. That forced a withdrawal to a base 6 miles away, he said, deploring “a missed opportunity to annihilate” the al-Qaida-linked insurgents.
“The mistake was made by two commanders, Maj Oluka and Maj Obbo, who ordered the soldiers to retreat,” Museveni said on Saturday, adding that they would face charges in a court martial.
However, he said: “Our soldiers demonstrated remarkable resilience and reorganised themselves, resulting in the recapture of the base.”
ATMIS has so far not disclosed how many people died, but said it sent in helicopter gunships as reinforcement after the pre-dawn raid.
The US also said it conducted an airstrike near the base a day after it was attacked. US Africa Command said it “destroyed weapons and equipment unlawfully taken by al-Shabaab fighters”, without specifying when or where the weapons were stolen.
The attack highlights the endemic security problems in the Horn of Africa country as it struggles to emerge from decades of conflict and natural disasters.
Last year, Somalia’s president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, launched an “all-out war” against al-Shabaab, 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 airstrikes. But 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 May 2022, the militants stormed an AU base and triggered a fierce firefight that killed about 30 Burundian peacekeepers, a high-ranking Burundian military officer told AFP. The Somali government and the AU condemned the attack, without disclosing how many people had died.
In September 2015, at least 50 AU troops were reported by western military sources to have died when al-Shabaab fighters overran a military base south-west of Mogadishu.
The 20,000-member ATMIS force has a more offensive remit than its predecessor, known as Amisom. It 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.
In a report to the UN security council in February, the UN secretary general, António Guterres, said 2022 was the deadliest year for civilians in Somalia since 2017, largely as a result of al-Shabaab attacks.