53 peacekeepers killed in Somalia offensive

More than 50 African Union peacekeepers have died in fighting in Somalia since a major offensive against Islamist militants began two weeks ago, officials told The Associated Press on Friday.

The death toll is far higher than any publicly acknowledged casualty figures for the African Union, which appears to be trying to keep the extent of its losses under wraps due to political considerations in Burundi, one of two nations providing the bulk of the forces.

The African Union force, known as AMISOM, has publicly confirmed only a handful of deaths since heavy fighting broke out in Somalia on Feb. 19. An AMISOM spokesman in Nairobi did not answer calls Friday. The Burundian government spokesman was unavailable for comment.

Wafula Wamunyinyi, the second-highest ranking official on the AU's commission for Somalia, declined to discuss casualty figures when reached Friday.

"I don't have that information where I am now," he said.

Two Nairobi-based diplomats said at least 43 Burundian and 10 Ugandan troops have been killed since Feb. 18, citing information from people involved in the operation. The two spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.

In addition, a Burundian soldier has been captured alive by militants, and his image and a recorded statement have been circulating on websites used by al-Shabab, Somalia's most dangerous insurgent group.

AMISOM says hundreds of militants from al-Shabab have been killed in the offensive. AMISOM officials say peacekeepers have taken back insurgent-controlled areas of Mogadishu, the capital. The A.U. says it controls up to 60 percent of the city.

There are around 8,000 A.U. forces in Mogadishu, with another 4,000 due to arrive over the next few months. Almost all are Ugandan or Burundian. They support the country's weak U.N.-backed government against al-Shabab, factions of which have allegiance to al-Qaida.

© 2011 The Associated Press.

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