Somalia's al Shabaab group makes rare attack near Ethiopia border

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MOGADISHU, July 21 (Reuters) - Militants from Somali Islamist group al Shabaab attacked two villages near the border with Ethiopia, killing 17 people including three civilians and Ethiopian police officers inside Somali territory while 63 of its fighters were killed, an Ethiopian security commander at the scene said.

The rare border-area attack occurred on Wednesday when fighters of the al Qaeda-linked group raided Yeed and Aato villages in Somalia's Bakool region after the killing days earlier of one of their commanders on the Ethiopian side of the border, the Ethiopian commander said.

Attacks by al Shabaab in areas near Ethiopia's border are rare because of a robust Ethiopian security presence in the region and inside Somalia, where they are also part of an African peacekeeping force.

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An al Shabaab commander had crossed the border to create a unit in Ethiopia, said the Ethiopian commander, who asked not to be named as he was not authorised to speak to the media.

The Ethiopian commander had initially put the death toll at 17 Ethiopian police officers killed but later clarified that civilians were among the dead.

He said the regional Ethiopian police seized heavy machine guns and vehicles from al Shabaab fighters. He said he had seen the dozens of al Shabaab dead.

Al Shabaab’s military operation spokesperson, Abdiasis Abu Musab, said the group's fighters had captured the two villages and killed dozens of Ethiopian police officers there. He also said the group seized weapons from the Ethiopian police.

Musab declined to comment on al Shabaab's death toll.

Casualty figures given by al Shabaab and the authorities in Somalia or elsewhere are often significantly different. Reuters is generally unable to independently verify the numbers.

Somalia Prime Minister Hamza Abdi Barre's office said he had spoken about the attack with the president of Somalia's southwest region, where Bakool is located. The president of Ethiopia's Somali region had no comment on the attack.

Barre's office said he had ordered security and relief agencies to respond to the situation in Bakool.

Al Shabaab frequently carries out bombings in Somalia to topple the government and rule based on its strict interpretation of Islam's sharia law.

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Reporting by Feisal Omar and Addis Ababa Newsroom; Writing by George Obulutsa; Editing by James Macharia Chege and Mark Porter

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