, MOGADISHU, Mar 22 – Ethiopian soldiers and pro-government Somali force closed in on a key town in southwest Somalia Thursday, battling Al-Qaeda allied Shebab insurgents, official and witnesses said.
Heavily armed troops advanced towards the town of Hudur, capital of the Shebab-controlled Bakool region, about 90 kilometres (56 miles) from the Ethiopian border.
“Somali soldiers backed by the Ethiopian armed forces are now very close to Hudur, and they will secure control of the town in the coming few hours,” said Somalia MP Mohamed Ibrahim.
“Shebab fighters tried to ambush our forces but they were defeated late on Wednesday, and they have fled the area,” he added.
A Shebab commander confirmed the fighting but denied that his troops had run away.
“Mujahedeen fighters ambushed the enemy convoy trying to seize Hudur, and many of their soldiers were killed and armoured trucks destroyed,” the Shebab commander said, asking not to be named.
Witnesses said Shebab fighters fled Hudur at dawn Thursday, leaving the town empty of gunmen.
“The Shebab left town, they left because of the approaching forces from Ethiopia,” said Mohamud Idow, a resident in Hudur.
“Ethiopian forces are now about eight kilometers (five miles) away from town, there has not been much fighting since the fierce battles yesterday,” said Ahmed Madker, another resident.
The loss of Hudur would be another blow to the Shebab, who face increasing pressure from pro-government forces and regional armies.
Last month the extremists lost control of their strategic base of Baidoa to Ethiopian troops, the second major loss in six months after abandoning fixed bases in the capital Mogadishu.
However, experts warn the Shebab are far from defeated and remain a major threat, especially now they have in many areas switched to guerrilla tactics.
On Tuesday, the rebels were ousted from the central town of Dhusamareb hours after they captured it from a pro-government militia, in fierce battles both sides claimed had killed several rival fighters.
The Shebab and other armed groups control large areas in the south of the lawless Horn of Africa nation, that has suffered the depredations of a two-decade civil war and the devastation of a severe humanitarian crisis.