MOGADISHU - Somali Islamist militants drove a car bomb at a hotel in a town in central Somalia that was being used by African Union and Somali military forces, a resident and the militant group said.
The al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab movement said its raid on Monday claimed many lives, but poor communications to that region of the Horn of Africa nation, a country wracked by fighting for more than two decades, made it difficult to verify numbers.
The insurgent strike followed an attack on a military convoy near the capital Mogadishu on Monday which killed four Somali soldiers, an army captain said.
The AU peacekeeping force AMISOM, now bigger after Ethiopian troops joined this year, has launched an offensive to clear more territory still held by al Shabaab rebels. The Islamists have responded with more guerrilla assaults.
Hussein Nur, a resident in Bulobarde town, said a car bomb exploded late on Monday at the Camalow hotel, and this was followed by fighting between troops and militants that lasted several hours. He was speaking on Tuesday morning, but his line cut before he could provide further details.
AMISOM could not immediately be reached for comment. "First, a mujahid (holy warrior) with a car bomb entered the hotel, followed by two well-armed fighters who sprayed bullets,"said Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, Al Shabaab's military operation spokesman, told Reuters on Tuesday.
He said 32 soldiers were killed. In the past, al Shabaab has exaggerated numbers while officials have downplayed losses.
Al Shabaab was driven out of bases in the capital more than two years ago, but has continued to control swathes of countryside and smaller towns, which it uses as launchpads to strike.
Regional nations and the West worry that, unless al Shabaab is denied the use of such territory, it will be able to plan strikes well beyond Somalia borders, such as the attack on a Kenyan shopping mall last year that killed at least 67 people.
Bulobarde, controlled by al Shabaab until last week, lies about 210 km (130 miles) north of Mogadishu, where al Shabaab has carried out frequent raids on targets that follow similar pattern, with a car bombing followed by an assault by gunmen.
Al Shabaab told Reuters the suicide bomber and a militant gunman were killed in the Bulobarde attack.
The earlier attack on a convoy of AU and Somali soldiers took place next to a military base at Arbis, near Mogadishu.
Somali army captain Ahmed Aden said four soldiers were killed. Al Shabaab's Abu Musab claimed a higher toll, and also said other nationalities died, but this could not be confirmed.