, MOGADISHU, Feb 21 – Ethiopian troops in battle tanks thrust into rebel-held Somalia regions on Tuesday, sparking heavy fighting as they advanced towards the major Shabaab stronghold of Baidoa, witnesses said.
The Ethiopian soldiers backed by local Somali fighters took control of several areas along the road heading south from the border to Baidoa, which hosted the transitional parliament before the rebels seized the town in 2009.
“We are getting information that heavy fighting broke out near Bohol-Bashir. The Ethiopian soldiers have taken control of Kurteele and are advancing towards Baidoa,” local resident Abdikarin Ahmed told AFP.
At least six civilians were also killed when a landmine struck a vehicle in a southern Somali town near the scene of the fighting, a local elder said.
The Ethiopian advance on the Shabaab stronghold comes as the Al-Qaeda allied rebels face increasing pressure on two other fronts, with Kenyan troops coming from the south and aiming for the port of Kismayu while African Union troops try to firm up their grip on Mogadishu and its surroundings.
A local Shabaab commander claimed his forces had defeated the Ethiopians.
“The enemies of Allah, Ethiopian mercenaries, crossed to Bohol-Bashir advancing on to the bases of the Mujahideen fighters, but they were defeated,” said Sheik Mohamed Abu-Ayub.
“Some of their trucks were destroyed and their intention thwarted by the young energetic soldiers of Allah.”
The insurgents have been reinforcing their positions over the past three days in anticipation of the advance.
Despite abandoning fixed bases in the capital Mogadishu, the rebels still control swathes of territory in southern and central Somalia.
Kenyan forces which deployed into southern Somalia in October have claimed that they have weakened the hardline militia after months of aerial bombardments and ground assaults.
The US special representative for Somalia, James Swan, said Tuesday that the local authorities in areas captured from the Shabaab should be bolstered to help consolidate the gains.
“United States believes a key priority that straddles security, politics and recovery is how to govern and assist in areas recaptured from Al- Shabaab,” Swan told reporters in a conference call.
“It is urgent to avoid security and governance vacuum in these locations and to provide a rapid recovery where Al- Shabaab has left,” he added.
Separately, at least six civilians were killed and eight others wounded in the southern Somali town of Berdale when a landmine struck a vehicle.
“We don’t know who planted the landmine. The area is not far from the battle zone,” local elder Mohamed Isgowe said.
Since plunging into lawlessness 21 years ago, Somalia has been governed by warlords, ruthless gunmen and internationally-backed interim governments, all of which have failed to exert credible authority across the country.
Somalia’s disparate leaders agreed at the weekend under UN auspices on the basic structure of a new parliament and government to replace a fragile transitional body whose Western-backed mandate ends in August.
On Thursday, Somali and foreign leaders will meet at a London conference to tackle the Horn of Africa country’s protracted chaos that has spawned piracy, terrorism and a devastating humanitarian crisis.