MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — Al-Qaida-linked militants claimed to have killed 70 foreign African Union peacekeepers but an eyewitness said many of the bodies put on display were likely Somali government soldiers. An AU spokesman said Friday that the insurgents had stolen uniforms and dressed up scores of their own dead.
The militants said the bodies were proof they are still capable of putting up a fight despite coming under attack on two fronts.
African Union troops and government soldiers pushed the al-Shabab militia from their last bases in the capital on Thursday, AU spokesman Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda said. And Kenyan troops supporting a pro-government militia have pushed at least 60 miles (100 kilometers) inside Somalia in the past week.
Al-Shabab has retreated before the Kenyan forces so far, but the militants have struck back in the capital with a series of bombings — including a truck bomb that killed over 100 people. On Thursday, they put up a bloody fight when AU forces arrived in Deynile, al-Shabab's last base in Mogadishu.
The militants showed around 60 bodies after the fierce fighting, according to several eyewitnesses. Photos show that some of those displayed wore flak jackets and helmets — equipment that is issued to AU soldiers but not common among government troops or insurgents. But many other bodies were only dressed in green camouflage uniforms.
One eyewitness, a photographer at the scene, said he counted 58 bodies. There were about 30 men in the line who were clearly Somali and some wore tattered government-issued uniforms, he said. The origin of nine bodies was unclear because their faces were down in the sand or for other reasons, he said.
But 19 others wore the type of uniform given to Burundian troops and looked like foreigners, he said. The militants also displayed a Bible and some crucifixes, items unlikely to be carried by Muslim Somalis. He did not see any identity documents, he said.
The eyewitness spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals because his observations contradicted the militants' account.
Ankunda said that 10 soldiers had been killed and two were missing after Thursday's battle. The bodies of the 10 dead soldiers were safely in AU hands, he said. An internal AU document seen by The Associated Press said that 38 soldiers also had been wounded.
"It's a manipulated picture," Ankunda said. "They dressed up their own casualties ... I think they've been keeping some uniforms."
Later, he said that the uniforms were so new that the Burundians had not even been issued them yet.
The AU has previously underreported casualties and al-Shabab routinely exaggerates the number of people it has killed.
"The extremists have also been using the suburbs of Deynile as a base to assemble improvised explosive devices, including car and truck bombs such as those recently employed to target civilians in the capital," said AU force commander Maj. Gen. Fred Mugisha in a press release.
He confirmed Ankunda's casualty figures, but said they were not final since operations were ongoing. Mugisha said that journalists should be cautious about using the pictures purporting to show dead AU soldiers.
"While it is true that some of our soldiers remain unaccounted for, regardless of whom the deceased may be, the desecration of remains for propaganda purposes is against all civilized norms and international conventions."
An al-Shabab spokesman insisted that all the bodies displayed were Burundian soldiers. The 9,000-strong AU force is made up of Burundians and Ugandans.
"You see their dead bodies here, our mujahedeen killed 70 of them today," spokesman Sheik Ali Mohamud Rage said on Thursday. "Allah punished them in the hands of the mujahedeen when they tried to attack us."
AU soldiers have steadily pushed al-Shabab back over the past year and the insurgents withdrew from most of the city overnight in August.
On Monday, Rage said al-Shabab would send suicide bombers to Kenya in retaliation for their excursion into Somalia. Kenya originally said it was pursuing gunmen who kidnapped four foreigners from Kenyan soil in the past six weeks. But later a military spokesman said they planned to push onto Kismayo, an insurgent stronghold and a complex, long-term operation that would have required far more advance planning.
Currently, the Kenyan forces are not far from the town of Afmadow, a strategically important cross roads where al-Shabab executed two men for spying on Friday.
The two men were brought into an open ground, tied to a pole and shot by masked men, said eyewitness Ahmed Mohamed.
"Some of the spectators vomited, and women cried when they saw the men being shot. They were well known to us," said Halima Abdi. "They told us to come out for a religious sermon then they brought the two boys and executed them. Those who wanted to flee were ordered to stay. It was awful," she said.
Al-Shabab has been weakened by internal divisions and a famine in its strongholds in the south that has claimed tens of thousands of lives. Many Somalis also have expressed disgust with the suicide bombings and harsh punishments that are key tactics of the insurgency.
Houreld reported from Nairobi, Kenya.