, MOGADISHU, Mar 20 – Al-Qaeda-allied Islamist gunmen seized a key town in central Somalia Tuesday and fired mortar bombs at the presidency in Mogadishu as Shebab commanders called for more attacks on the government.
Shebab fighters on pickup trucks mounted with machine guns stormed Dhusamareb town at dawn, driving out the pro-government militia Ahlu Sunna Wal Jamaa, an Ethiopia-backed force who follow Somalia’s traditional Sufi branch of Islam.
“The mujahedeen fighters stormed the district after attacking it from two directions early this morning, there was little fighting as the apostate militia fled the city,” Shebab commander Sheikh Mohamed Ibrahim said by telephone.
“With God’s help, we will be advancing onto other districts in the region,” he added.
Dhusamareb is a strategic town in the central Galgadud region controlling a key road, and its capture marks a notable fight back by the hardline Shebab, who have pulled out of several key areas in recent months.
Rival armed groups have repeatedly fought over Dhusamareb, controlling it briefly until fresh attacks root them out.
“Al-Shebab fighters riding on vehicles mounted with guns entered the town after fighting with the Sufis, the city has now fallen and they are setting up their base in the police station,” said Abdirahman Moalim, an elder in the city.
“Al-Shebab is in full control, the other fighters (Ahlu Sunna) have left,” said Ahmed Mohamud, another resident.
The town’s capture comes as Shebab chief Ahmed Abdi Godane called on Islamist fighters to renew attacks against the 10,000-strong African Union force, which props up the weak Western-backed government in the anarchic capital Mogadishu.
“They (AU forces) will continue to face hard hitting guerilla attacks that will destroy them, just as armies that were more powerful than them were destroyed,” Godane said in a broadcast on the pro-Shebab Radio Al-Andalus.
Godane, who is also known as Abu Zubayr, also called for attacks in the northern autonomous Puntland region, which is allied to the Western-backed government.
“Mujahedeen fighters in areas controlled by the apostate Puntland government must remain unified, you must strengthen your battle fronts until you ensure the Islamic flag flies over the whole region,” he added.
Shebab fighters in the war-torn capital Mogadishu launched a salvo of mortar bombs near the presidential palace in the early hours of Tuesday, the second night of bombardment in the area, after attacks Sunday killed six civilians.
“Mortars were thrown in the area of the presidential palace again, but did not damage it, and security teams are working around the clock to end this threat,” said AU force spokesman Paddy Ankunda.
The Shebab face increasing pressure from pro-government forces and regional armies, and last month lost control of their strategic base of Baidoa to Ethiopian troops, the second major loss in six months after abandoning fixed bases in capital.
Kenya sent its troops into southern Somalia to fight them in October, blaming the Shebab for the abductions of several foreigners. Its troops have now been incorporated into the AU force.
Ethiopian forces entered Somalia a month later in the west, as international diplomatic, military and relief efforts focus on ending the conflict in the south.
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.
The Shebab and other militia groups have tried to exploit the power vacuum in Somalia, which has had no effective central authority since plunging into war 21 years ago when president Mohamed Siad Barre was toppled.