MOGADISHU: At least nine people have died in clashes between Al-Qaeda-linked Islamist rebels and Somali government forces and their Ethiopian allies, a village elder said Sunday amid conflicting claims from both sides.
Shebab fighters late Saturday ambushed a convoy of several hundred Somali and Ethiopian troops that was advancing on two towns in the southern Gedo region still controlled by the Shebab -- Bardhere and Burhdubo.
The ambush took place between Luq and Garbaharey, two towns lying within a radius of 100 kilometres (60 miles) from both the Kenyan and Ethiopian borders.
Both sides claimed to have had the upper hand, but a village elder said both sides suffered losses.
"The fighting was the heaviest in months in the region, with both sides using heavy weaponry and we are being told that at least nine fighters have died from the two sides", Ibrahim Duale, an elder in a nearby village, said.
Abdi Hidig, another resident in the region, said the fighting had stopped on Sunday but that the area remained tense and Shebab vehicles mounted with machine guns were in evidence.
Diyad Abdi Kaliil, a Somali government official in the region, said "the violent elements ambushed our forces and heavy fighting erupted that left 23 of their fighters dead.
"We defeated them and our forces are now in full control of the area," he said, adding that two of his men had been injured in the fighting.
A Shabab commander in the region denied the claim.
"We killed eleven of their soldiers and destroyed three of their trucks and they retreated," Sheikh Mohamed Abu-Abdirahman, told AFP.
Shebab fighters have lost the major towns they used to control in south and central Somalia but still hold a few strategic towns such as Bardhere and Burhdubo. Government troops and their African allies are trying to wrest back control of those towns.