Somali President to declare war on al-Shabab after deadly truck blast
Somalia's president is to announce a "state of war" against al-Shabab extremists as the death toll from last week's truck bombing in Mogadishu rose to 358, with dozens more people still missing.
The US is expected to play a supporting role in the new offensive which President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed will launch on Saturday.
Somalia's army spokesman Capt Abdullahi Iman said the offensive involving thousands of troops will try to push al-Shabab fighters out of their strongholds in the Lower Shabelle and Middle Shabelle regions, where many deadly attacks have been launched on the capital, Mogadishu, and on Somali and African Union bases.
The extremist group has not commented on the October 14 truck bombing in the capital, 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 kilograms and 800 kilograms (1,300lbs and 1,700lbs), instead detonated in a crowded street after soldiers opened fire and flattened one of the truck's tyres.
Somalia's information minister Abdirahman Osman said 56 are people still missing. Another 228 people were hurt, and 122 were airlifted for treatment in Turkey, Sudan and Kenya.
"This pain will last for years," said a sheikh leading 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-Shabab, Africa's deadliest Islamic extremist group, only to end them weeks later with no explanation.
Experts believe this gave the extremists breathing space and emboldened them in their guerrilla attacks.
It has emerged that troops recaptured three towns in the Lower Shabelle region from al-Shabab on Friday in preparation for the new offensive.
The US 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 US has carried out at least 19 drone strikes in Somalia since January, according to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
The latest drone strike occurred Monday about 35 miles south-west of the capital, the US Africa Command said. Its impact is still under assessment.
Earlier this week, in response to questions about the massive truck bombing, a Pentagon spokesman said the United States has about 400 troops in Somalia, and refused to speculate over sending any more.
In April, the US announced it was sending dozens of regular troops to Somalia in the largest such deployment to the country in roughly two decades, for logistics training of Somalia's army.
Weeks later, a service member was killed during an operation against al-Shabab. He was the first American to die in combat in Somalia since 1993.