A U.S.-backed operation by Somali special forces has freed 32 children who were kidnapped by militant group al-Shabab.
Somali Information Minister Abdirahman Omar Osman said Friday that Somali forces rescued the kids from a school in the Middle Shabelle region.
“The militants were indoctrinating the children, but now they are safe and are in the hands of the government,” he said in a phone interview with VOA’s Somali Service.
A Middle Shabelle resident told VOA that soldiers transported by helicopter raided the school overnight in Jame’a Jilay village, where the militants were training children to become fighters.
There has been no comment from the U.S. military, but the use of helicopters in the raid indicates U.S. involvement. U.S. military personnel have been training Somali soldiers to fight al-Shabab and defend Somalia’s federal government.
A pro-al-Shabab website said Somali and American troops “massacred” schoolchildren and their teacher.
The resident, who asked not to be named for reasons of personal safety, said at least 10 people including four children, the trainer and five other militants were killed during the raid.
“Dozens of other children, aged 9 to 10 years old, were freed and taken from the scene,” the resident said. He said most of the children rescued are those who the militants abducted from nearby villages.
“Village elders and all the people in this community feel scared from al-Shabab,” the resident said.
Human Rights Watch recently reported that al-Shabab militants are forcing communities in remote areas to hand over children as young as eight to be trained as fighters.
In a separate development, U.S. forces conducted an airstrike against al-Shabab on Thursday. The U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) says the strike hit an area 50 kilometers northwest of Kismayo and killed four militants.
It says no civilians were killed in the attack.
The U.S. military has carried out dozens of airstrikes in Somalia targeting al-Shabab, including several recent strikes that AFRICOM says hit vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices and prevented attacks in Mogadishu.