MOGADISHU Somalia's al Shabaab rebels ambushed an armored convoy carrying the country's president during a rare overland trip outside the capital on Tuesday, a Reuters witness said.
President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed was unharmed in the attack which occurred on the outskirts of Elasha town, located between Mogadishu and the former rebel stronghold of Afgoye, about 30 km (18 miles) northwest of the city.
"The fighting split the convoy. Vehicles scattered in different directions," a Reuters photographer travelling with the convoy said. Bullets struck several African Union (AU) peacekeeper vehicles but none were damaged.
The firefight lasted about 30 minutes and forced the AU to fire shells to subdue the attack, he said, adding that the armored vehicle carrying Ahmed sped off as fighting broke out.
A spokesman for the AMISOM peacekeepers confirmed the ambush, A brazen raid which underscored the ease at which al Shabaab, which merged with al Qaeda earlier this year, are able to launch hit-and-run attacks in areas they have vacated.
Al Shabaab has in the last nine months surrendered territory under military pressure in and around Mogadishu and in parts of southern and central Somalia where they are battling Ethiopian and Kenyan forces.
On Tuesday, Kenyan battleships patrolling off the southern port city of Kismayu struck al Shabaab positions in the city after the rebels fired anti-aircraft guns at them.
"Our ships were fired at by onshore elements, so they fired back at rebel targets around the port," Kenya's military spokesman Colonel Cyrus Oguna told Reuters.
Kismayu is the nerve-centre of al Shabaab's southern operations and their last main bastion after the fall of Afgoye.
Residents said the warships moved away after the morning bombardment, but returned later to attack militants again.
"We have not seen warships come that close before and fire on Kismayu," said resident Saleh Omar by telephone.
Asked if the strikes were a precursor to a long-anticipated assault on Kismayu, Oguna said: "Kismayu has remained an area of interest for the international effort to stabilize Somalia."
African Union and Somali government troops captured Afgoye on Friday and then secured an aid corridor linking the town to Mogadishu over the weekend, wresting control of a strip of land believed to hold around 400,000 people displaced by conflict.
Al Shabaab said they had pulled out of the Afgoye corridor in a tactical retreat, but threatened to strike back.
"If the government controls the Afgoye corridor, then President Sharif should be able to pass there peacefully," Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, al Shabaab's spokesman for military operations, told Reuters.
The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, said on Tuesday 14,000 people had been displaced by the recent military activity in the Afgoye corridor.
(Additional reporting and writing by Richard Lough in Nairobi)