Uganda announced that 54 soldiers were killed on May 26 in Somalia in the attack claimed by radical Islamist Shebab against an African Union (AU) base, one of the deadliest in the country in recent months.
The assault on the base of the AU force in Somalia (Atmis), manned by Ugandan soldiers, was launched at dawn in Bulo Marer, 120 km south-west of the capital Mogadishu, using a car bomb and suicide bombers, followed by clashes with automatic weapons.
The al-Qaeda-affiliated Shebab, who have been waging a bloody insurgency in the country for over fifteen years, claimed responsibility, claiming to have "occupied" the base and caused numerous casualties.
Neither Atmis nor Mogadishu gave a precise death toll, finally announced on Saturday evening by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.
"We found the lifeless bodies of 54 soldiers, including a commander," announced Mr. Museveni in a statement posted on his official Twitter account. This was one of the deadliest attacks since the Atmis-backed Somali government launched an offensive against the Shebab last September.
Two days after the assault, Mr. Museveni offered his condolences to the families of the soldiers killed, implicitly conceding that there had been casualties, and added that "all the facts" would be "made public".
Mr. Museveni explained the heavy toll by the poor decisions of two officers, who were panicked by the attack by "800 terrorists" and ordered their soldiers to retreat.
These officers "did not react as expected and panicked, which disorganized them, and the Shebab took advantage of this to invade the base and destroy some of the equipment", said Mr. Museveni, adding that the two men would be court-martialed for their actions.
Despite this, "our soldiers showed remarkable resilience and reorganized themselves, which enabled them to retake the base," he said.
A Somali army commander told AFP of "violent fighting" before the Shebab retreated in the face of reinforcements sent by Atmis, including helicopter gunships.
The attack was condemned by the United States and the European Union.
- Violence and drought -
The Shebab are fighting the Somali government and its international allies to establish Islamic law in this country in the Horn of Africa.
To counter them, in 2007 the African Union deployed a force made up of soldiers and police from Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya, called Amisom and authorized by the UN Security Council.
Atmis took over from Amisom in April 2022, with a more offensive mandate, and the aim of handing over full responsibility for the country's security to Somali forces by the end of 2024.
Driven out of the main towns in 2011-2012, the Shebab remain firmly entrenched in vast rural areas.
In May 2022, they launched a major attack against an Atmis base manned by Burundian soldiers north of Mogadishu. Neither the Somali authorities nor the AU have given any figures, but Burundian military sources told AFP that 45 soldiers were killed or missing.
After returning to power in May 2022, Somali President Hassan Cheikh Mohamoud declared an "all-out war" against the Shebab and launched a military offensive, backed by Atmis and US air strikes.
In September, the Somali president sent troops to support local clan militias who had risen up against them in the center of the country.
The army and these militias, known as "macawisley", have since recaptured large swathes of territory from the shebab, supported by Atmis and US air strikes.
Despite these setbacks, the Shebab have continued to carry out deadly attacks, including in the heart of towns and military installations. On October 29, 2022, two car bombs exploded in Mogadishu, killing 121 people and wounding 333, the deadliest attack in the country in five years.
In a report to the UN Security Council in February, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres claimed that 2022 had been the deadliest year for civilians in Somalia since 2017, largely due to Shebab attacks.
At the same time, the country, like its neighbors, is facing a disastrous drought, the worst in at least four decades.
Around half of Somalia's population will need humanitarian aid this year, with 8.3 million people affected by the drought, the UN estimates.