Mogadishu: Somalia`s Al-Qaeda-affiliated Shebab militants rammed a suicide car bomb into an African Union base Tuesday before storming the compound, with witnesses reporting many dead, although the AU insisted it had fought off the attack.
Eye-witnesses said the Shebab had taken over the camp and were looting the weapons stores, but the AU force in Somalia (AMISOM) insisted it was in control of the base.
Unconfirmed reports spoke of more than 20 bodies at the site.
"The base is still under AMISOM control, reports that the base has been taken over and our weapons captured are false," an AU statement said without giving further details.
Shebab fighters said AMISOM troops had fled the base in Janale district, 80 kilometres (50 miles) southwest of Mogadishu in the Lower Shabelle region.
"Mujahedeen fighters captured the base after a suicide bomber struck it, the enemy fled," the Islamists said in a brief statement.
"There was a heavy explosion and fighting broke out at the AMISOM base in Janale," said Mohamed Shire, a Somali military commander in the area.
Witnesses said Shebab fighters had breached the barricades around the camp.
"Many people stormed the camp after AU soldiers fled, and they started looting together with Al-Shebab," said local resident Hussein Idris, who said gunmen loaded corpses of AU troops onto trucks.
The Shebab has previously gathered the bodies of dead soldiers for use in propaganda videos of its attacks."They were collecting dead bodies, I saw nearly 30 soldiers killed during the fighting," Idris said.
Another eyewitness, Ahmed Ali, said he had seen AMISOM troops fleeing the base, and had counted as many as 20 bodies.
"The fighters also looted weapons and ammunition," Ali said.
Another local eyewitness described how a Shebab suicide bomber first attacked the camp gates.
"Heavy fighting broke out after a suicide bomber rammed his vehicle into the camp," said Ali Moalim Yusuf. "I saw heavily armed fighters chanting `Allahu Akbar` (`God is greatest`) pouring into the base."
The casualty reports could not be independently confirmed. AMISOM troops from both Burundi and Uganda are deployed in the region.
The Shebab, fighting to overthrow Somalia`s internationally-backed and AU-protected government, has launched a string of similar attacks.
In June, Shebab fighters killed dozens of Burundian soldiers when they overran an AMISOM outpost northwest of Mogadishu. The militants also stage frequent suicide attacks inside the capital.
But the 22,000-strong AMISOM force has also made significant gains against the Shebab, pushing them out of several strongholds in the southwest of the country.