The al-Shabab attack comes amid a protracted political crisis in Somalia and a drought crisis in the Horn of Africa.
The armed group al-Shabab has attacked an African Union mission troop camp in the Shabelle region in central Somalia, a local elder and the group have said.
“We were awoken by huge blasts early in the morning. The blasts were at the African Union mission base. Heavy exchange of gunfire followed,” local elder Mohamed Nur told the Reuters news agency on Tuesday by phone from El Baraf, about 130km (80 miles) to the north of the capital, Mogadishu.
Another resident, who lives in a village near the scene, said three civilians had died in the crossfire. He also said he saw two helicopters flying by and gunfire coming from them.
Al-Shabab, which has been fighting for years to topple the central government and establish its own rule based on its strict interpretation of Islamic law, claimed responsibility for the attack.
“The Mujahideen launched a pre-dawn raid on an ATMIS [African Union Mission] military base in El Baraf, middle Shabelle region,” al-Shabab said in a statement.
“After a fierce firefight, the Mujahideen managed to overrun the base and are now in complete control of the entire military base.”
Farah Hussein, a shopkeeper, told Reuters from El Baraf that after the initial attack, helicopters were seen flying above the scene.
“We heard some gunshots and sounds of weapons being fired from the helicopters,” he said by phone.
“The ATMIS forces are also in the jungles pursuing the al-Shabab fighters. So far we know three civilians died and five others were injured in the fighting.”
Officials in Shabelle and the African Union mission were not immediately available to comment on the attack.
Al-Shabab frequently carries out bombings and gun attacks in Mogadishu and elsewhere as part of its war against the Horn of Africa country’s central government.
It also attacks soldiers working for the African Union peacekeeping mission.