Mogadishu (AFP) - Islamic insurgents stormed a Somali military base outside the capital Mogadishu early Monday, claiming to have inflicted heavy casualties.
The fighting broke out at Laanta-Buro military base about 40 kilometres (25 miles) south-west of Mogadishu soon after midnight with witnesses saying fighters from the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Shebab overran the camp.
"Hundreds of Shebab fighters have stormed the base and there was very heavy fighting. The militants looted the army depots and set fire to the camp," said Ali Muktar, a resident of a nearby village.
Somali military official Abdulahi Ibrahim confirmed the attack. "There was heavy fighting at Laanta-Buro last night but I cannot elaborate on casualties," he said.
In a message broadcast on Shebab radio and published on sympathetic websites the Islamists claimed to have killed "73 government soldiers" and captured vehicles, weapons, ammunition and equipment including seven "technicals", the machine gun mounted battlewagons popular in Somalia.
"The Mujahedeen fighters have successfully stormed and destroyed Laanta-Buro military base, thanks to God," the Shebab said on its Radio Andalus station.
However, the government disputed the claim saying that it had in fact fought off the assault.
"The violent elements attacked Laanta-Buro military base and the army repelled them, their dead bodies are strewn around here and the army is chasing them," said Ahmed Absuge Abdulle, a senior military commander.
In the last year Shebab has stepped up its attacks on isolated military bases, overrunning camps manned by Ugandan, Burundian and Kenyan troops deployed as part of the African Union peace-enforcement mission, AMISOM, and killing scores of soldiers each time.
The Shebab was ousted from Mogadishu in August 2011 and has since lost much of the territory it once held. Today, it concentrates on guerrilla attacks in the Somali countryside, bombings and suicide raids in towns and cities.
Shebab attacks have increased in tempo recently, seen as an attempt to destabilise the internationally-backed government ahead of an election due later this year.