MOGADISHU, Jan 17 (Reuters) - African Union peacekeepers trying to dislodge Islamist rebels from Somalia's Lower Shabelle region shot dead at least seven civilians in a remote town, including five children who were studying the Koran, residents said on Thursday.
The peacekeeping force said it was investigating an incident in which civilians may have been caught in crossfire as its troops repelled a rebel attack on a defensive position in the town of Leggo.
"Initial reports indicate that some civilians, including children, were killed and others are hospitalized with gunshot wounds," it said in a statement, adding that it was "establishing the facts and the circumstances around this tragic incident."
People from Leggo said the soldiers opened fire on a cluster of makeshift homes at dawn on Tuesday and there were no gunbattles between the troops and the rebels at the time.
"The AU forces opened fire indiscriminately on our homes," Yusuf Omar, who had taken his two wounded nephews to the capital Mogadishu, about 130 km (78 miles) away, said on Thursday.
Omar said eight people were killed in the incident. A member of parliament for the area put the death toll at seven. Both said that five children had died.
Sabdow Nur, an elder of Leggo, said it was possible the AU troops had mistaken the houses for a rebel camp.
"The AU forces ... came to the makeshift homes and opened fire," he said. "It was about 6 a.m. The children were learning the Koran. They also killed camels and goats."
The incident could damage the standing of the peacekeeping force, know as AMISOM, in Somalia where it is relatively popular, in particular in Mogadishu and other urban areas that it has helped seize back from the militants linked to al Qaeda.
There are 17,600 peacekeepers helping defend the Somali government against a six-year insurgency by the militants seeking to impose sharia, or Islamic law, on the country. (Reporting by Abdi Sheikh; Editing by Richard Lough and Tom Pfeiffer)