Hundreds of fighters from al-Shabaab, the Islamist militant group that controls parts of Somalia, have stormed an army base, killing up to 70 people and wounding dozens more.
Residents said some civilians were beheaded during the attack on the remote Af-Urur camp, in Somalia’s semi-autonomous northern state of Puntland.
The attack, one of the deadliest to target Somali security forces for several years, underlines the continuing strength of al-Shabaab, an al-Qaida affiliate.
The assault began with a blast, before the extremists overran the base and killed soldiers at close range, said Ahmed Mohamed, a senior military official.
An exact death toll was not yet available, he said, adding: “The situation is grim over there. This attack was an unexpected one.”
Liban Mohamed, a nurse at the hospital in nearby Armo town, said at least 40 wounded soldiers had been brought there. Witnesses said the militants wore uniforms resembling those of local security forces and attacked at dawn.
Capt Yasin Nur Mohamed, a local military officer, said the militants shouted “God is great” as they breached the camp’s limited defences.
“They caught my fellow soldiers off-guard,” he said. “We did not expect such a big assault on our base. They entered chanting ‘God is great’ from the side of the hill while many of the soldiers manning the base were asleep. They killed many of my friends.
“It was a complete loss to us. But now we have returned to the base. We are preparing to bury the dead soldiers and civilians.”
Hashi Muse, 45, a farmer living near the camp, was preparing a meal when he heard an explosion and gunfire.
“What happened today was a massacre – they killed many civilians,” he said. “This afternoon I have seen dead bodies of those killed. I have seen four headless women, bodies slaughtered by al-Shabaab in one place.
“They killed every person they saw, even children.”
The women are thought to have been cooks for the soldiers.
Such violence, if confirmed, is unprecedented locally and may indicate an escalation of the long-running conflict in Somalia.
The extremists, including suicide bombers, reportedly attacked the base from three directions and used a vehicle bomb to open a gap in a perimeter fence. Similar tactics have been used in a series of successful attacks on military bases elsewhere in the country in recent years.
Al-Shabaab claimed it killed at least 61 soldiers in the attack. “Early on Thursday, our fighters stormed a military base in Puntland. This base was used by foreign soldiers and Puntand apostates in the area,” it said in a statement.
“We have killed many soldiers – as the number goes up, we have counted about 60. Our fighters took control of the whole town including the base … This was a huge defeat of the western-trained soldiers in Somalia.”
Some local forces have received training from US, British and other western armies in recent years. Al-Shabaab said it seized a large amount of weapons and ammunition as well as more than a dozen military vehicles. The group’s strongholds are in the south and centre of Somalia, though it has a presence through much of the country.
Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, the newly elected president, has pledged to rid Somalia of al-Shabaab, which was formed in 2009. The US is increasingly engaged in the campaign against the group.
Donald Trump, the US president, recently designated Somalia a “zone of active hostilities”, allowing commanders greater authority when launching airstrikes, broadening the range of possible targets and relaxing restrictions on the use of air power designed to prevent civilian casualties.
The group, which has not been implicated in any plots to strike the US or Europe, has carried out several high-profile terrorist attacks in east Africa. It has attracted recruits from the US and Europe.
Puntland also faces a threat from a faction of Islamic State-linked fighters who have split from al-Shabaab. Isis and al-Qaida, which are rivals, have encouraged militants to stage attacks during the holy month of Ramadan.