Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni confirmed that 54 Ugandan peacekeepers were killed when al-Shabaab militants attacked an African Union (AU) base in Somalia last week. The assault, which occurred on May 26, represents one of the deadliest recent attacks by the jihadist group in the war-torn country.
President Museveni announced the death toll, including a commander, in a late-night Twitter post on Saturday. This admission is significant, as it is a rare acknowledgment of a major military loss by African Union member states.
Al-Shabaab, known for waging a prolonged insurgency against Somalia’s fragile central government, claimed responsibility for the attack and asserted that it had overrun the base, killing 137 soldiers. However, the group is known to inflate its claims for propaganda purposes, while AU member nations typically refrain from confirming casualty figures.
According to local residents and a Somali military commander, the militants drove a vehicle laden with explosives into the AU base located in Bulo Marer, approximately 75 miles southwest of the capital, Mogadishu. This triggered a fierce gunfight, ultimately leading to the withdrawal of the peacekeepers to a base 6 miles away. President Museveni criticized the retreat, describing it as a missed opportunity to defeat the al-Qaida-linked insurgents.
Museveni singled out two commanders, Maj Oluka and Maj Obbo, for ordering the retreat and stated that they would face charges in a court martial. However, he also praised the resilience and reorganization of the Ugandan soldiers, resulting in the recapture of the base.
While the AU Task Force for Somalia (ATMIS) has not disclosed the number of casualties, it did mention deploying helicopter gunships as reinforcement following the pre-dawn raid. Additionally, the United States conducted an airstrike near the base the day after the attack, destroying weapons and equipment unlawfully acquired by the al-Shabaab fighters.
This assault highlights the ongoing security challenges faced by Somalia, which is striving to recover from decades of conflict and natural disasters. The country’s president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, launched a comprehensive campaign against al-Shabaab last year, urging Somalis to help root out the jihadist group, which he referred to as “bedbugs.”
Despite recent territorial gains by pro-government forces supported by ATMIS and US airstrikes, al-Shabaab continues to carry out deadly attacks against civilian and military targets. Last October, the group orchestrated the deadliest attack since the offensive began, killing 121 people in two car bomb explosions at the education ministry in Mogadishu.
Previous incidents involving al-Shabaab include the storming of an AU base in May 2022, resulting in the deaths of approximately 30 Burundian peacekeepers, and an attack in September 2015 that claimed the lives of at least 50 AU troops at a military base southwest of Mogadishu.
The ATMIS force, consisting of 20,000 members from Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Kenya, has a mandate to conduct offensive operations. It aims to transfer security responsibilities to Somalia’s army and police by 2024.
In a February report to the UN Security Council, UN Secretary-General António Guterres highlighted that 2022 was the deadliest year for civilians in Somalia since 2017, largely due to al-Shabaab attacks. The ongoing violence underscores the need for concerted efforts to address the security challenges and support the stabilization and recovery of Somalia.