By Abdi Sheikh
MOGADISHU, March 18 (Reuters) - An al Shabaab suicide bomber rammed a car into the gates of a hotel used by African Union peacekeepers in central Somalia before gunmen sprayed the building with bullets, killing many, the al Qaeda-linked militant group and residents said.
The night-time attack happened in Bulobarde, abandoned by al Shabaab last week as African troops advanced on the town in a new offensive aimed to flush the militants from the area. Bulobarde's streets were mostly deserted on Tuesday.
Local elder Hassan Nur said his nephew, the military commander of Hiran province, and a local government official were among the dead.
"Most of the troops and civilians inside the hotel died or were wounded. We couldn't count how many died because AU and Somali forces swarmed all over the place," Nur told Reuters.
The AU force, known as AMISOM, said it stood with "the fallen soldiers" but did not say how many had been killed. AMISOM launched this month a new push to drive al Shabaab from southern and central Somalia.
The militants, who seek to impose their version of Islamic law, were driven out of bases in the capital more than two years ago, but have continued to control swathes of countryside and smaller towns, which they use as launchpads to carry out attacks at home and abroad.
An al Shabaab spokesman said two gunmen sprayed the hotel with bullets immediately after the initial explosion, killing at least 32 soldiers. In the past, al Shabaab has often exaggerated death tolls while government officials have downplayed losses.
Nur reported hearing a prolonged gun battle and later seeing the bodies of five militant fighters being dragged through a street early on Tuesday, indicating more rebels were involved in the raid. Other residents confirmed hearing sustained gunfire.
Tuesday's strike by al Shabaab followed an attack on Monday on a military convoy near the capital Mogadishu, which killed four Somali soldiers, according to an army captain.
REGIONAL STATES ALERT
Regional nations and the West worry that if al Shabaab is left to thrive in remote territories, it could once again plan strikes beyond Somalia's borders, such as the attack on a Kenyan shopping mall last year that killed 67 people.
Al Shabaab said it carried out that attack to punish Kenya for sending troops to Somalia. Kenya said it had arrested two suspected al Shabaab militants on Monday with bombs that might have targeted the coast popular with tourists.
In Uganda, the police warned al Shabaab was planning attacks on fuel trucks in transit or at fuel depots or stations in the country.
Authorities in Kampala, where al Shabaab killed 77 people when they bombed crowds watching broadcasts of the 2010 World Cup final in Johannesburg, said they would now escort trucks in some areas.
Bulobarde lies about 210 km (130 miles) north of Mogadishu, where al Shabaab has carried out raids following a similar pattern of a car bombing followed by an assault by gunmen.
Helicopters ferried away military casualties, said local shopkeeper Ismail Gedi, adding that he believed the AMISOM forces in Bulobarde were from Djibouti, one of six troop contributing nations.
The Bulobarde strike underscores the difficulties AMISOM and the fragile Somali government face in quashing the stubborn seven-year long Islamist insurgency, especially as a deteriorating security situation risks alienating pockets of the Somali population.
"AMISOM has just irritated al Shabaab instead of either leaving them alone or eliminating them," Nur said.
The president of the semi-autonomous Puntland region told Reuters this month he feared the military purge risked squeezing the militants north into his territory, which has largely escaped the Islamist insurgency. (Additional reporting by Feisal Omar in Mogadishu and Elias Biryabarema in Kampala; Writing by Edmund Blair and Richard Lough; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)