Ethiopian troops and Somali government forces have taken control of a key Somali city after battling al-Shabab rebels on the outskirts, leaving at least 18 dead, sources have said.
"The fighting started this morning after our forces supported by the Ethiopian military attacked the enemy's positions on the outskirts of Beledweyne," Bare Abdulahi, a Somali government security official, said from the scene on Saturday.
"They lost in the battle and we have penetrated into their barracks, killing nearly 20 of their fighters before taking control of the city.
"The Somali government forces alone entered the city and they are securing it now," he added.
The city, Beledweyne, lies some 30 kilometres from the Ethiopian border.
"We have counted around 18 dead bodies, most of them the combatants, some of them have died outside the city and others are lying in the streets of Beledweyne," Mohamed Moalim Osmail, an elder in the city, confirmed to the AFP news agency.
"I saw some Somali government troops accompanied by armed trucks belonging to the Ethiopian forces, they have entered the city and the fighting has stopped now," Abdirahman Isa, another witness, said.
Ï have seen nearly 20 dead bodies strewn in the streets and outside the town, most of them are combatants but a few civilians were also caught in the crossfire," he added.
Tracking the assault
While conceding that al-Shabab withdrew from the city, the group's press office quoted their military spokesman Abu Musab as suggesting that the armed group planned a withdrawal "owing to indiscriminate shelling of [the] heavily populated city and mounting civilian-combatant ratio".
The al-Shabab rebel movement denied having been defeated in the city, suggesting they had retreated to reorganise.
|In-depth coverage of the regional political crisis
"The enemy tried to destroy the frontline barracks of the mujahideen fighters but they lost in the battle. We killed many of them and the mujahideen fighters have retreated back from some positions in order to reorganise their strategy," Abu Musab told reporters in the capital, Mogadishu.
The group, which is active on Twitter under the name HSM press office (@HSMPress), tracked the assault online, saying that three to five thousand troops had launched an attack on the city and that the "majority of local residents have joined the Mujahideen to thwart the offensive".
"In the close quarters combat, the Ethiopians suffered heavily and corpses of 54 Ethiopian troops are now scattered in the outskirts of the city," it said.
HSM Press said that after close quarter combat in which Ethiopian forces "were forced to retreat", the Ethiopians launched a fourth attack resulting in the city being "divided into two, Eastern and Western, by [the] Shabeelle river meandering through the city; battle is now raging on the Eastern part".
Residents said that several hundred Ethiopian troops crossed into Somalia's central Galgudud and Hiran regions on November 19, but Addis Ababa dismissed the reports as "absolutely not true".
Separately on Saturday, the director of Belgium's chapter of Doctors Without Borders said he is increasingly concerned about two kidnapped workers being held in Somalia following the shooting deaths of two other workers by a disgruntled employee in Mogadishu.
Christopher Stokes said Doctors Without Borders is evaluating whether to maintain its operations in Somalia after the shooting deaths of a Belgian and Indonesian worker at the group's compound in Mogadishu on Thursday.
"At the moment our intent is to try to maintain operations, including with international staff, but we are reviewing our ability to do that given this latest attack and the kidnapping,'' Stokes told The Associated Press in a phone interview.
"We have to understand how someone was able to enter with a gun into our hospital. That's one thing that's missing in our understanding. How did someone enter with a gun and open fire?'' he said.
The employee who carried out Thursday's shooting was a logistics officer who had recently learned - though had not been officially told by Doctors Without Borders - that his contract would not be renewed, Stokes said.
|Two MSF staff were killed in Somalia on Thursday [AFP]
The deaths of Philippe Havet, 53, from Belgium; and Andrias Karel Keiluhu, 44, from Indonesia, on Thursday underscore the risks that volunteers for the group encounter in Somalia. Havet was country director for MSF, as the group
is known by its initials in French. Keiluhu was a doctor.
In October, gunmen entered the world's largest refugee camp - Dadaab, in Kenya but near the Somali border - and snatched two Spanish women working for Doctors Without Borders.
Even though the kidnapping and the gunfire attack were not related, Stokes said the two events together has "increased the concern and the pressure on our organisation'' and the decisions that need to be made about its Somalia operations.
Doctors Without Borders carries out nutrition, vaccination and cholera programs in Mogadishu, which has pockets of thousands of internally displaced people who moved to the capital and live in squalid camps in an attempt to
Residents also are frequently caught up in fighting between government troops and militants from al-Shabab.