Somalia’s president expected to announce war on al-Shabaab extremists following bombing

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Thousands of anguished Somalis gathered to pray Friday at the site of the country’s deadliest attack, while the death toll rose to 358 and dozens remain missing. Somalia’s president will announce a “state of war” against the al-Shabaab extremist group blamed for the bombing, the prime minister said.

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The United States is expected to play a supporting role in the new offensive that President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed is set to launch on Saturday, a Somali military official told The Associated Press. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.

Somalia’s army spokesperson Capt. Abdullahi Iman said the offensive involving thousands of troops will try to push al-Shabaab fighters out of their strongholds in the Lower Shabelle and Middle Shabelle regions where many deadly attacks on Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, and on Somali and African Union bases have been launched.

Also Friday, the U.S. military said it had resumed its fight against al-Shabaab with a drone strike.

The extremist group has not commented on Saturday’s truck bombing in Mogadishu, which Somali intelligence officials have said was meant to target the city’s heavily fortified international airport where many countries have their embassies. The massive bomb, which security officials said weighed between 600-800 kilograms, instead detonated in a crowded street after soldiers opened fire and flattened one of the truck’s tires.

‘This pain will last for years’

Somalia’s information minister Abdirahman Osman said late Friday that 56 people are still missing. Another 228 people were wounded, and 122 had been airlifted for treatment in Turkey, Sudan and Kenya.

“This pain will last for years,” said a sheikh leading the Friday prayers at the bombing site, as long lines of mourners stood in front of flattened or tangled buildings.

Since the election of the country’s Somali-American president in February, the government has announced a number of military offensives against al-Shabaab, Africa’s deadliest Islamic extremist group, only to end them weeks later with no explanation. Experts believe that has given the extremists breathing space and emboldened them in their guerrilla attacks.

Iman, Somalia’s army spokesperson, told the AP that troops recaptured three towns in the Lower Shabelle region from al-Shabaab on Friday in preparation for the new offensive.

Somali officials did not give details on what role the U.S. military might play. There was no immediate response late Friday from the U.S. Africa Command.

The U.S. has stepped up military involvement in the long-fractured Horn of Africa nation since President Donald Trump approved expanded operations against the group early this year. The U.S. has carried out at least 19 drone strikes in Somalia since January, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

The latest U.S. drone strike occurred Monday about 56 kilometres southwest of the capital, the U.S. Africa Command told the AP earlier Friday. It said it was still assessing the results.

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A Somali volunteer prays at the scene of the explosion. (Feisal Omar/Reuters)

Earlier this week, in response to questions about the massive truck bombing, a Pentagon spokesperson said the United States has about 400 troops in Somalia and “we’re not going to speculate” about sending more.

In April, the U.S. announced it was sending dozens of regular troops to Somalia in the largest such deployment to the country in roughly two decades. The U.S. said it was for logistics training of Somalia’s army and that about 40 troops were taking part.

Weeks later, a service member was killed during an operation against al-Shabaab. He was the first American to die in combat in Somalia since 1993.