African Union troops are in Mogadishu as peacekeepers.
A Somali militia linked to Al-Qaida claimed Thursday to have killed dozens of African Union soldiers in fighting in Mogadishu and displayed the bodies on the outskirts of the war-torn capital.
If the claim is confirmed, it would represent the largest loss for the 9,000-member AU mission in Somalia since it was started in 2007. And it would serve as a blunt warning of the Al-Shabab militia's capabilities, even as Kenyan soldiers press into its stronghold in famine-ravaged southern Somalia.
In recent months, Al-Shabab has been pushed out of much of Mogadishu by forces of the African Union and the weak Western-backed transitional government. But this month, it claimed responsibility for a suicide attack at a government compound that killed more than 80 people. Among them were students waiting for exam results that could have meant scholarships to study in Turkey.
The African Union force, made up of soldiers from Uganda and Burundi, is in Somalia to protect the transitional government. The AU did not confirm the killings Thursday.
Shabab spokesman Ali Mohamud Rage held up the small wooden crosses and Bibles of the dead, claiming they were Burundian troops.
Images circulating on the Internet showed the corpses of several dozen men in uniform laid out on the ground, surrounded by a large crowd of people. Some appeared to have machetes or large knives embedded in their bodies. Others had suffered gunshots. Some were missing their boots. In one image, a young man holding a pistol stands over a body.
The photographs were posted on the website of the pro-Shabab Mogadishu radio station Radio Al Furqaan. Al- Shabab claimed to have killed 70 AU soldiers, but the number of dead was not clear.
One witness reported counting 63 bodies, said the Agence France-Presse news service.
"I have counted 63 Burundian soldiers, all of them dead," AFP quoted witness Hasan Yunus. "Al Shabab brought them on trucks to Alamada," an Al-Shabab-controlled area about 10 miles outside of Mogadishu.
Kenyan forces crossed the border into southern Somalia over the weekend after the recent kidnapping of several foreigners.
On Wednesday, officials in Paris said a Frenchwoman who had been kidnapped along the Kenyan coast and taken to Somalia had died.
Kenya's military operation had been planned for months, according to analysts. But the kidnapping of foreigners, which could hurt Kenya's $730-million tourist industry, was the trigger for the military operation.
However, the timing may hurt its effectiveness. The rainy season has just set in, and reports say military vehicles have gotten bogged down in the mud.
Kenya blames militants for the kidnappings. But piracy and kidnapping are rampant in much of Somalia, which has not had a functioning government in 20 years, and it is not clear why Kenyan officials have singled out Al-Shabab.
Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki, who has been criticized for his silence as the incursion began, said in a speech Thursday that it was launched to protect Kenyan security.
"Our security forces have begun operations within and outside of our borders against militants who have sought to destabilize our country," he said.
Kenya's deputy internal security minister, Orwa Ojode, has vowed to sweep up Al-Shabab supporters in Eastleigh, a suburb of Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, that is home to many Somalis.
"I am going to do a mother of all operations here in Nairobi to remove all Al-Shabab and Al-Qaida," he told parliament Wednesday. "This is like a big animal with the tail in Somalia. We are still fighting the tail and the head is sitting here."
Aid agencies are concerned that the military action in southern Somalia will hamper efforts to fight the famine.
"The main concern is that we are in the middle of a famine, where hundreds of thousands of lives are at risk," said Oxfam spokesman Alun McDonald. "The last thing they need right now is more conflict that could displace more people and make it even harder for aid agencies to reach them."