, MOGADISHU, Dec 9 – African Union troops and Somali forces seized the formerly Islamist-held town of Jowhar on Sunday, wresting control of one of the largest remaining towns held by the Al-Qaeda linked Shabaab, officials said.
The loss of Jowhar is a significant blow to the Shabaab, who have lost a string of towns in recent months to the 17,000-strong AU force, as well as to Ethiopian troops who invaded Somalia last year from the west.
“We took control this morning and are now establishing security in Jowhar,” Colonel Ali Houmed, a spokesman for the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), told AFP.
“AMISOM troops alongside Somali National Forces entered the town, there was little fighting as the Shabaab largely fled ahead of us.”
Shabaab spokesman Abdiaziz Abu Musab confirmed to AFP that the extremist forces had pulled out of the town, which lies some 90 kilometres (55 miles) north on a key road from the capital Mogadishu.
“We have withdrawn our troops from Jowhar for strategic reasons,” Abu Musab said, adding that the forces had pulled out without suffering any casualties and remained “close by” to the town.
“We will hunt the invaders from inside and outside Jowhar,” he added.
But while the fighters have largely retreated ahead of each assault, some are reportedly relocating to the Galgala region of the northern Golis mountains in Somalia’s semi-autonomous Puntland region.
The Golis mountains, straddling the porous border between the autonomous state of Puntland and self-declared independent Somaliland, are honeycombed with caves and difficult to access.
The northern mountains have long been under the control of warlord, arms dealer and Shabaab ally Mohamed Said Atom, who has been hit with UN Security Council sanctions for “kidnapping, piracy and terrorism.”
Jowhar, the regional capital of Middle Shabelle region, had been under the Islamists’ control since 2009, after Ethiopian troops in a US-backed invasion pulled out in the face of a bloody insurgency.
Its capture brings a step closer the prospect of AU troops pushing northwards being able to link up with Ethiopian soldiers ahead in the Hiraan region.
AMISOM’s commander Andrew Gutti said Jowhar’s capture would “go a long way towards improving security” in the Hiraan and Shabelle regions.
Shabaab fighters are on the back foot, with AU troops also battling to open up the road northwest from Mogadishu to link the capital with Baidoa, which is held by Ethiopian soldiers.
Kenyan troops – who invaded Somalia a year ago before later integrating into AMISOM – have also pushed up from the south, and seized the Shabaab bastion and major port of Kismayu in September.
But the Shabaab remain a potent threat, still controlling rural areas as well as carrying out guerrilla attacks – including suicide bombings – in areas apparently under government control.
The Shabaab, who abandoned fixed positions in the war-torn capital Mogadishu last year, have also carried out a series of guerrilla attacks there.
The hardline insurgents still control the small port town of Barawe, lying some 180 kilometres south from the capital.
Somalia has been in political chaos and deprived of an effective central government since the fall of President Siad Barre in 1991.
However, a new administration took office in September, ending eight years of transitional rule by a corruption-riddled government.
Over a million Somalis are displaced inside the country while over a million are refugees in neighbouring nations, according to UN figures.
The United Nations this month appealed for $1.3 billion to support 3.8 million people – about half the population of the war-torn country – it said are in need.
In 2011, famine in the country caused by extreme drought exacerbated by conflict caused the deaths of tens of thousands of people and affected more than four million people, according to the UN.