Islamist extremists attacked an army post in northeastern Somalia, killing 12 soldiers in one of the deadliest attacks in recent months by the al-Qaida-linked group, al-Shabab, an official said Wednesday.
The attack occurred in Galgala Mountains, in the semiautonomous Puntland region, where the al-Shabab rebels are trying to expand their influence.
The militants attacked the post and blew up a roadside bomb on Tuesday night, killing the soldiers, said a Puntland official, who insisted on anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press.
Al-Shabab rebels have been pushed out of the cities of southern and central Somalia by African Union forces. The Somali government says the militants are consolidating in Galgala.
The rebels' northern flight to the Galgala Mountain comes after months of increasing pressure from the African Union force, made up of troops from Uganda, Burundi, Ethiopia and Kenya.
Al-Shabab this year merged with a Puntland warlord — Mohamed Said Atom — and clashed with government forces in Puntland several times. Al-Qaida and al-Shabab — the most powerful Islamist militant group in Somalia — merged earlier this year.
Galgala is an ancient mountain town in Puntland has been a key rebel stronghold for years. Fighters led by former arms trader Atom have been fighting the Puntland government from bases in the mountains for years. A 2010 report by the U.N. accused Atom of importing arms from Yemen and receiving consignments from Eritrea, including mortars, for delivery to al-Shabab forces in southern Somalia. Atom's supporters say he is fighting for more equitable distribution of revenues from oil exploration deals with foreign companies.
Puntland authorities have long blamed Atom's group and al-Shabab for carrying out bombings and assassinations in their region, but outright assaults on government positions have been rare.
Al-Shabab relies on several hundred foreign fighters — some with experience in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Al-Shabab formally joined al-Qaida earlier this year, and seeks to recruit new soldiers from Somali communities overseas.
U.S. and British officials in particular fear that young recruits from Somali communities in Minneapolis, Minnesota or London could train in Somalia, and return to their home countries to carry out attacks.
Somalia is trying to establish its first functional government after two decades of chaos since 1991, when warlords overthrew Said Barre— a longtime dictator— and then turned on one another.