AU forces capture rebel strongholds near capital
|Wednesday February 15, 2012||PRINT THIS PAGE|
MOGADISHU (Reuters) - African Union troops launched an offensive against al Qaeda-linked Somali rebels and captured strongholds to the south of the capital Mogadishu, the AU force said on Tuesday.
The Burundian contingent of the AU's peacekeeping force (AMISOM) overpowered the rebels after a fierce gun battle in which 10 rebels were killed and two AU soldiers injured, said the acting AU troops commander, Brigadier General Audace Nduwumunsi.
He said the push was part of the force's efforts to secure the Somali capital by cutting off the al Shabaab's ability to infiltrate and mount attacks on the city and its people.
The troops took Al Janal hill near the city's main airport as well as the Maslah building that sits on the road to Afgoye, an al Shabaab stronghold, he said.
"Operations are ongoing to expand the zone of security in Mogadishu," Nduwumunsi said in a statement.
However, officials at Al Shabaab denied the claim that their strongholds had been captured by the AU forces, and said they had killed AU soldiers during the fighting.
"We killed 7 Burundians in today's fighting," Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, the spokesman for al Shabaab's military operation, told Reuters. "AMISOM is lying, they have not captured our positions," he added.
Al Shabaab, which wants to impose its harsh interpretation of sharia, the Islamic moral and legal code, relinquished control of the coastal capital in August, under pressure from AMISOM.
The Islamist fighters have since then shifted to towns outside the capital and switched their tactics to guerrilla-style warfare, using roadside bombs, grenade attacks and hit-and-run raids against government installations in Mogadishu.
Roads leading to al Shabaab-conrolled towns of Afgoi, Elasha, Lafole, and Km 13, a small town located a short distance south of Mogadishu, were cut off by the fighting, residents said.
Ali Musa, a rescue official, said access from the southern towns to Mogadishu had been cut off.
"Shells have landed on Km 13 and near Elasha town. Most of the people are on board mini-buses. We are fleeing and yet we have no way out," he said.
The rebels continue to hold swathes of central and southern Somalia but are being squeezed out of some areas by Kenyan and Ethiopian troops, which have launched incursions inside Somalia in support of the beleaguered government.
Somalia descended into chaos in 1991 after dictator Siad Barre was overthrown. (Writing by James Macharia; Additional reporting by Feisal Omar; Editing by Alessandra Rizzo)