African Union and Somali troops on Sunday took control of Barawe, a port town used by al Shabaab to bring in arms and fighters from abroad, after the al Qaeda-linked militants fled without a fight, the AU and a Somali official said.
The African Union and the Somali military launched a joint offensive in March to drive the Islamist fighters out of towns and areas they control, and stepped up their campaign in August after a surge in gun and bomb attacks in Mogadishu.
Many al Shabaab members have been arrested and smaller towns retaken, but the rebels still hold swathes of territory.
“I wish to share some very good news with the people of Somalia. Al Shabaab terror capital Barawe is now under Somali government control,” Lydia Wanyoto, the acting head of the African forces, said in a statement issued by the African Union.
Military officials said the AU and Somali soldiers would remain on the outskirts of Barawe for a few hours, and enter the town on Monday.
“There are no al Shabaab, but we felt it was not wise to rush in today, for there can be bombs planted in the town,” a senior military officer who asked not to be named told Reuters.
Abdikadir Mohamed Sidii, the governor of the Lower Shabelle region in southern Somalia, where Barawe is located, said that al Shabaab had fled before the forces surrounded the town.
“We have settled most of the troops on the fringes of the town in order not to scare the residents. Only a few infantry are now inside. The mood is calm and there is neither attack nor resistance. Residents are calm,” Sidii told Reuters.
Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, al Shabaab’s military operations spokesman, declined to comment on whether the group had abandoned the town.
ECONOMIC AND MILITARY BLOW
Hussein Nur, a university lecturer in governance and leadership in Mogadishu, said Barawe’s loss was a major blow to al Shabaab.
“Economically, it was a port where they exported charcoal and imported what they needed. Militarily, it was a strategic place where Shabaab leaders and foreigners hid and trained bombers,” he told Reuters.