Somali soldiers prepare to secure the capital on the eve of presidential elections on Feb. 7, 2017. Farah Abdi Warsameh / AP

An estimated 70 people, both soldiers and civilians, were killed Thursday after hundreds of fighters from al-Shabaab, an Islamist militant group affiliated with al-Qaida, attacked a military base in Somalia. A senior military official said the incident began with an explosion, after which fighters stormed the Somali base in Puntland, a semiautonomous state in the northeast, from three different directions. In addition to numerous casualties, dozens were wounded, and around 40 injured soldiers were brought to the local hospital in Armo.

The fighters “killed every person they saw, even children,” Hashi Muse, a local farmer who witnessed the attack, told The Guardian. Other witnesses reported that al-Shabaab beheaded civilians while donning uniforms that resembled those of local security forces. According to Yasin Nur Mohamed, a Somali military officer, the fighters chanted “God is great!” as they approached the military base. “They caught my fellow soldiers off-guard,” Mohamed told The Guardian. “We did not expect such a big assault on our base.” He added that many of his fellow soldiers were asleep at the time of the attack, which took place at dawn.

On Thursday, al-Shabaab released a statement saying they had killed “about 60” soldiers, in addition to seizing weapons, ammunition, and more than a dozen Somali military vehicles. “This was a huge defeat of the western-trained soldiers in Somalia,” the group said, referring to the various U.S., UK, and Turkish forces that have trained Somali troops to fight al-Shabaab militants. In April, President Trump approved the deployment of a dozen U.S. troops to Somalia for this very purpose. American troops were previously pulled from the area in 1994 following the death of 18 soldiers in the Battle of Mogadishu (later the subject of the 2001 film Black Hawk Down). In an effort to fulfill his mission of cracking down on terrorist organizations, Trump also sanctioned additional airstrikes targeting al-Shabaab.

Somalia’s new president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, shares Trump’s desire to eradicate the extremist group. In April, Mohamed referred to his own nation as a war zone and gave al-Shabaab fighters 60 days to lay down their arms in exchange for education and jobs. “We shall welcome them with open arms,” Mohamed said, while commissioning an offensive that included new military, intelligence, and police chiefs. Al-Shabaab has since disregarded the new president’s message, calling him an “apostate.” The group continues to wage attacks and bombings on Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, and other areas in east Africa. Thursday’s attack on the Somali base in Puntland portends to be one of the deadliest in years.

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