On The Front Lines In Somalia

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African Union troops have spent more than three years battling Islamist insurgents in Mogadishu, Somalia. The troops, most of them from Uganda, are trying to seize control of Mogadishu.

W: Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia. Troops with the African Union have spent more than three years battling Islamist insurgents there. The troops, most of them from Uganda, are trying to seize control of Mogadishu. And the effort is funded, in part, by you - the American taxpayer.

NPR's Frank Langfitt is with the Ugandan troops on the front lines of Mogadishu, and here's what it sounds like.


: Frank, tell us more about where you are and what, exactly, we're hearing there.

FRANK LANGFITT: Well, that was a lot of gunfire. I was out this afternoon around sunset, taking a tour of the front lines. And right now, it's a little bit later. And I'm in the heart of the city in an old, abandoned villa, actually - kind of bunkered down for the moment.

It's interesting. The city is full of these. They were once beautiful houses. I'm looking at a shade tree and a big courtyard, but of course it's been shot to pieces. There's rubble all over the courtyard. There's a big hole in the wall and then, still shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade. And if you look around, it's a beautiful, starry night, and there are no lights around because, of course, Somalia has collapsed as a state and has very little electricity.

: The fighting that we heard, what's the nature of this? Are these large armies, commandos? What's going on?

LANGFITT: It's really brutal. It's house to house. It's really measured by yards. It's a grinded-out, kind of urban warfare. I took a tour of the battlefield where the insurgents, the al-Shabab, had been this morning. We went into these houses. They were heavily sandbagged. And what was really kind of amazing is to see that inside the houses, there were all these tunnels. In order for al-Shabab to get in, they had to tunnel their way through.

We even found a place where there was asphalt. And underneath it, there was a four-foot-deep tank trap. And the idea is if a tank went over it, it would fall in. There was a fair bit of mortar fire and bullets going by. The group of soldiers that we were talking to, they lost one person this morning and about eight were injured.

: Two questions for you, Frank: Who are these Islamist fighters? And we noted that this effort is funded, in part, by the American taxpayer. Why is the United States involved in this?

LANGFITT: Sure. The group al-Shabab claims an affiliation with al-Qaida. What the United States and the European Union and the British government is doing, is they're helping to fund the African Union troops who are defending a transitional federal government here in Mogadishu that's really beleaguered. And they're trying - they don't want to lose the city to this Islamist insurgency that would like to turn Somalia into a strict Islamist state.

They haven't gone much beyond the border so far, but they did take credit for attacking Uganda over the summer, and killed 70 people in a couple of bombings. And so the U.S. is concerned about an expanded war in East Africa, and concern that this could become a breeding ground for terrorism.

: Who's winning this war?

LANGFITT: No one yet. And it's very hard to measure. This morning was a great example. The African Union took about 70 yards, and they expect that later tonight, al-Shabab will try to take back that 70 yards. That's the way they're fighting it.

Ugandans are jungle fighters. They're adapting to a really different kind of environment. They have about 8,000 troops now. The U.N. has approved another 4,000, but it's not clear when they'll come here.

: How close to the battle do you actually get, Frank?

LANGFITT: Very close, within about 50 meters. Close enough that earlier, when we were out tonight, you know, we saw bullets hitting the walls above our heads.

: That was NPR's Frank Langfitt with African Union troops on the front line in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu. Frank, please say safe.

LANGFITT: Thanks, Michele.

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