SHAFAQNA – About 1,000 African Union and Somali troops launched an assault on Sunday to retake the al-Shabaab militant stronghold of Barawe on the southern Somali coast and has so far met no resistance, a Somali military official said. The African Union and the Somali military launched a joint offensive in March to drive the al Qaeda-linked Islamists out of towns and areas they control, and stepped up their campaign in August after a surge in gun and bomb attacks in Mogadishu. Several al Shabaab members across Somalia have been arrested and smaller towns retaken, but the rebels still hold swathes of territory. On Aug. 30 the AU forces drove the militants out of the small southern town of Bulamareer.
Barawe is the biggest al Shabaab-held town that the offensive has targeted so far.
“We are now on all the fringes of Barawe town. There is no resistance, but our forces are now going into the heart of the town,” Abdirizak Khalif, Somalia’s deputy military commander, told Reuters.
He was talking to Reuters on the outskirts of Barawe, after soldiers in trucks, tanks and armored vehicles had surrounded the town which lies about 180 km (110 miles) south of Mogadishu.
Barawe had been fully controlled by the Islamist militia with almost no government presence since 2006. Al Shabaab banned many aspects of modern life in the town, and applied its strict literal interpretation of Islamic sharia law, ordering executions, floggings and amputations for crimes such as theft.
Al Shabaab ruled most of the southern region of Somalia from 2006 until 2011, when African troops marched into the capital.
On Saturday Al Shabaab militants ambushed and burned two government vehicles approaching Barawe, Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, al Shabaab’s military operation spokesman, told Reuters on Sunday.
He declined comment on whether the Islamist militants had abandoned the town.
Al Shabaab was destabilized badly after it lost the southern port of Kismayo to AU and Somali government soldiers in September 2012. The group had controlled the port since 2007, and charged taxes to ships that sailed or docked from its shores, raising revenues to expand its military campaign.
(Additional reporting by Abdi Sheikh in Mogadishu; Writing by James Macharia; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)
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