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AU, Somali troops drive al Shabaab out of key base

Stuart Price, AFP | Kenyan troops are fighting alongside Somali forces as part of an African Union mission to drive out Islamist insurgents

Somali government troops backed by African Union forces on Wednesday captured the al Shabaab stronghold of Bardhere, one of the last key bases of the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamist group, officials said.

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"We have secured control of the town," Siyad Ahmed, a Somali military official, told AFP by telephone from the southern town. "The allied forces are now conducting mine clearing operations in the different neighbourhoods."

"There was no major resistance, and the violent elements fled when our troops approached. They have emptied the town," Ahmed said.

Witnesses in a nearby villages said the Islamist militants had pulled out after heavy fighting with Somali and AU troops.

They also said residents of Bardhere, situated 350 kilometres (225 miles) west of the capital Mogadishu and under al Shabaab control since 2008, had fled the area.

The Kenyan army said in a statement that its troops, fighting alongside Somali soldiers, killed at least 24 Islamists in the operation. An overall casualty toll was not immediately available.

An al Shabaab commander, Sheikh Ahmed Abu-Ubeyda, confirmed the militants had lost the town but insisted they had not been defeated and that fighting was continuing.

"The allied invading Christian forces and the Somali apostates entered parts of Bardhere this afternoon... but the Mujahideen are putting up resistance," he said.

"The Mujahideen fighters are still in the area and this fight will last longer than the enemy thinks," he added.

The fall of Bardhere comes less than a week after the African Union Mission in Somalia, or AMISOM, launched "Operation Jubba Corridor" -- an offensive it said was aimed at flushing the insurgents out of rural areas in southern Somalia.

The offensive has involved Ethiopian and Kenyan forces, officials said.

The loss of Bardhere will be a blow to al Shabaab, as control over territory helps it find recruits and source revenue through taxes on local business and trade.

The Kenyan military described the capture of a key bridge near Bardhere, used by the Islamist group to move its fighters and supplies within Somalia and towards Kenya, as an "operational milestone in the fight against al Shabaab".

The group, however, has bounced back from similar defeats in the past -- maintaining its capacity to conduct ambushes in rural areas as well as high-profile raids inside Mogadishu.

Amnesty

The AMISOM offensive was launched days after the Kenyan government said a US drone strike in the region killed at least 30 al Shabaab rebels, among them several commanders.

It also comes after last month's al Shabaab assault on a AMISOM base which left dozens of Burundian soldiers dead in one of the single deadliest incidents since AMISOM soldiers arrived in Somalia eight years ago.

Somalia information minister, Mohamed Abdi Hayir Mareye, said the Somali army-AMISOM offensive will continue "until we have retaken all areas currently occupied by terrorists".

He also urged Islamist fighters to defect "before al Shabaab enters its final catastrophic phase."

"We offer amnesty provided the individual meets four simple conditions: reject al Shabaab; renounce violence; commit to participation in the peace process... and be an ambassador to others still trapped," he said.

"Our offer has no time limit, but the longer you remain under the black flag, the more likely time will run out for you. Now is the time to leave."

But the militants have been progressively shifting their focus outside Somalia.

In a message marking Muslim Eid celebrations on Friday, al Shabaab leader Ahmed Diriye -- also known as Ahmed Umar Abu Ubaidah -- outlined plans for the group to increase its operations in Kenya, inviting potential recruits to training camps.

The group claimed responsibility for the September 2013 siege of the Westgate shopping mall in the Kenyan capital, which left 67 dead, as well as a massacre of 148 people, mostly students, at Garissa University in Kenya's northeast in April.

A string of other bombings and massacres in Kenya's northeast and along its Muslim-majority coastline have also been claimed by the Islamists.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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