Somalia's Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab rebels displayed "over 70'' dead bodies outside Mogadishu on Thursday, which they claimed were African Union peacekeepers killed in battle.
"We have killed more than 70 of the enemy soldiers today… We have inflicted heavy losses on them and you can see their dead bodies,'' Shebab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage said, displaying the bodies in the dust to reporters.
Photographs show long lines of at least 20 bodies dressed in military uniform laid out in the sand, surrounded by a crowd with their faces covered.
If verified, it would be the worst massacre and largest single defeat that the AU force in Mogadishu has suffered in some four years of bloody battles defending the weak Western-backed government against the hardline Shebab.
Witnesses confirmed that the dead bodies were displayed in the extremist Shebab-controlled Alamada area, some 18 kilometres (11 miles) outside the war-torn capital late Thursday, and that the bodies were not Somalis.
"I have seen the largest number of soldiers killed in a battle, I have counted 63 Burundian soldiers, all of them dead, the Shebab brought them on trucks to Alamada,'' Hasan Yunus, a witness said.
"Some of the dead bodies were dragged along by angry residents – I could not count them exactly, but there were more than 60,'' said Ahmed Jama, another witness.
African Union Mission for Somalia (AMISOM) troops and government forces have been pushing into remaining rebel areas in Mogadishu, after the bulk of the Shebab abandoned fixed positions in August.
Burundian troops with the 9000 strong AMISOM force control the sector closest to the fighting and are believed to have led the assault.
Ugandan soldiers make up the bulk of the AU force and control other sections of the anarchic capital.
Shamso Abdulkadir was amongst the giant crowd who came to see the dead bodies, and said that some wore body armour and helmets.
"I have counted 70, most of them were shot in the head and shoulders,'' Abdulakdir told AFP.
"Residents gathered to watch the dead bodies after they were publicly displayed, and then afterwards, they were dragged about by people,'' she said.
Somali government and AMISOM officials could not be immediately reached for comment.
Heavy fighting was reported in the northwest Deynile district throughout Thursday, but Somali government officials had earlier said they were moving alongside AU troops "towards the final strongholds of the terrorist militants.''
Battles began before dawn in Mogadishu as AU-backed Somali forces advanced on holdout Islamist Shebab positions, officials and witnesses said.
The fighting was centered in Deynile suburb, a remaining pocket still held by the Al-Qaeda linked militants in war-torn Mogadishu, which borders the rebel-held Afgoye, the world's largest camp for displaced people.