An Islamist suicide bomber from the Al-Qaeda linked Shabaab blew himself up Tuesday at an Ethiopian army base in the central Somali town of Beledweyne, officials and insurgents said.
“There was a heavy explosion that shook the whole the city, it occurred at a base where Ethiopian forces are stationed,” local security official Mohamed Osman told AFP.
“The suicide bomber was shot by security guards before reaching the gate and he blew up the vehicle. We are still investigating,” he added.
Hardline Shabaab officials said several Ethiopians were killed in the blast in Beledweyne, a large town about 30 kilometres (20 miles) from the Ethiopian border, but the claims could not be verified.
“One of the mujahideen fighters carried out a suicide mission and destroyed the biggest base of the Christian troops from Ethiopia, many of them are dead now,” said a Shaabab commander, who asked not to be named.
“I saw fire and smoke rising up in the sky, but no one can go close to the area, the Ethiopians sealed off the area,” he added.
Columns of Ethiopian troops crossed the border into Somalia in November and wrested control of Beledweyne alongside Somali anti-Shabaab forces earlier this month.
The Shabaab say they have bolstered positions around the town, which lies on a strategic crossroads and is a vital trade lifeline for rebels who are also under attack in Somalia’s south and in the capital Mogadishu.
Beledweyne is also a key trading town leading from the Ethiopian border south into the capital Mogadishu, as well as lying on the main route between north and south Somalia.
Witnesses said the suicide bomber drove a minibus full of explosives into the Ethiopian base shortly after dawn.
“It was very heavy explosion that shook the buildings in most parts of the city,” said Abdulkadir Isak, a witness.
The Shabaab insurgents control large parts of central and southern Somalia but are facing increasing pressure from government forces and regional armies.
Armies from neighbouring countries are converging on the Shabaab – Kenyan forces in the south, Ethiopian soldiers in the west, and an African Union force in Mogadishu made up of 10,000 troops from Uganda, Burundi and Djibouti.
The attacks are the latest in a string of blasts including roadside bombs and grenade explosions set off in recent months in the war-torn Horn of Africa nation.
Most have been set off inside the Somali capital Mogadishu, where the Shabaab have largely pulled out of fixed positions and switched to guerrilla tactics against the Western-backed government and AU troops there.