African Union and Somali government forces on Monday seized strategic positions from Islamist insurgents in an offensive to flush out the last pockets of rebellion in Mogadishu.
The drive came nearly a week after the insurgents carried out their worst ever suicide attack in the Somali capital, killing at least 82 people and demonstrating they were still able to wreak havoc deep inside the city.
The AU and government forces took a former pasta factory building, two key junctions and two districts in the northeast of the city, giving them control of movement into Mogadishu from the northern front.
One AU soldier was killed and six were wounded in Monday’s fighting, said force spokesperson Paddy Ankunda.
“The outer north and eastern fringes of the city must still be cleared, but key ground and buildings are no longer under the control of the extremists,” Ankunda said.
“The challenge is now to protect civilians from the sort of terror attack we saw last week,” he added.
“The pasta factory compound was an operational hub for the extremists from which they shell civilian targets. This operation is intended to save the lives of the people who have returned to their homes,” a government statement said.
The AU and Somali government forces began the offensive on Saturday to expel remnants left in Mogadishu after Shabaab fighters abandoned most of their positions there in August.
However, a Shabaab official who did not want to be named said they allowed the African Union Mission for Somalia (Amisom) troops to take the pasta factory to ensnare them.
“Allowing the Amisom troops to come to the pasta factory was just a trap planned earlier so that they spread out their troops,” the official told AFP.
“The idea of the Shabaab was not to defend any positions, but to do as much damage to Amisom.”
The devastating suicide bombing was the Shabaab’s first attack since their surprise withdrawal and spokesperson Ali Mohamud Rage vowed more violence against the government and the AU troops.
AU force commander Major General Fred Mugisha last week called for stronger world action against the Shabaab.
Although the 9 000-strong AU force controls 95% of Mogadishu, according to Mugisha, it remains overstretched and unable to ensure effective security of the war-ravaged city.
The rebels still control Dayniile district in southern Mogadishu and the main road linking the city to the western regions after their northern bases were captured in Monday’s operation.
Residents reported intense fighting during the offensive.
“There is heavy fighting around Jungal. They are exchanging heavy artillery fire,” said Fartun Idris.
Mugisha urged the population on Monday to back the shaky Western-backed transitional government.
“We urge the civilian population to support their government and isolate and reject criminals. That way we can start to provide effective security together,” he said in a statement.
The Shabaab had waged a four-year battle in Mogadishu to topple the Somali government before suddenly abandoning their bases.
Analysts said internal dissent, dwindling resources and popular support as well as their failure to dislodge the government forced them to give up the bloody campaign.
However, the Shabaab said it was a change of military tactic, which the security forces in Somalia said meant resorting to guerilla attacks.
The Somali government has repeatedly urged the international community to capitalise on the insurgents’ retreat to consolidate the administration’s authority.
Somalia has lacked an effective central government since plunging into a bloody civil war two decades ago.
Last month, the transitional government, authorities of two semi-autonomous regional administrations and a pro-government militia launched a new bid to restore security and set up a national authority after the Shabaab pull-out.
Published: October 11, 2011