KENYA-led African Union (AMISOM) troops and the Somalia National Army (SNA) have captured a key town in southern Somalia from militant Islamist group al-Shaabab.
The fall of the strategic town of Bardere, in Gedo region, is significant, as it was one of the militants’ main bases, and they had held it for seven years.
The AMISOM and Somali troops earlier on Tuesday evening captured Juungal, a small village, 35Kms west of Bardere city.
Al-Shabaab authorities in the town said that both Ethiopian and Kenyan forces had carried out air raids in the towns and the villages under their control.
As the forces advanced on Bardere, al-Shabaab militants released several prisoners.
Residents in Bardere region said they saw several prisoners released from detention camps in the town.
Some of the insurgents also fled. Farah Mohamed, a resident of the Bardere town, told Xinhua by phone on Wednesday that his son was among the released prisoners on Tuesday. “We are very delighted by the release of our son despite the ordeal and trauma he had been going through during his detention,” Mohamed said.
Medina Bare, a 45 year-old mother whose son was among the released was excited for the reunion, saying her son was not injured during the period in captivity. “This is a miracle I did not expect these Al-Shabaab militants would release my son from captivity, it is an act of God,” Bare told Xinhua.
Al-Shabaab authorities in Bardere did not comment on the sudden release of the prisoners.
Frightened at the possibility of battles between Al-Shabaab and Somali and AU troops, residents didn’t wait around, moving out to safer areas. The governor of Bay region Abdirashid Ali Mohamedi said they are expecting more people will flee the fighting in coming days.
Bardere is a strategic town which Al-Shabaab has been holding for last seven years and its loss will be a big blow to the militants fight against both Somalia and neighbouring Kenya.
The insurgents have continued to wage attacks against the Somali government even as they lose foot in most of the major bases they earlier controlled.
The fall of Bardere comes two days ahead of US President Barack Obama’s arrival in Kenya, a trip that will also take him to Ethiopia.
Ethiopia, Kenya, along with Uganda, Burundi, and Djibouti, provide the 22,000 AMISOM troops battling al-Shabaab.
The US provides most of the intelligence and aerial surveillance for the African Union mission in Somalia, and its drone and airstrikes inside the country have killed more than 30 militant leaders and commanders since September 2014.
Continuing setbacks for al-Shabaab would allow Obama to portray the US anti-terrorist strategy in the Horn of Africa as a success.
On current form, he will have a long casualty list to point to.
In one of the latest, on Tuesday AU soldiers killed five Islamist militants, including a senior leader of al-Shabaab, in Somalia after coming across a training camp, according to a statement from the peacekeeping mission.
The mission denied reports in the local media that soldiers killed civilians in the coastal town of Marka.
The forces seized weapons during the operation, including a bomb and rifles, as well as a flag of al-Shabaab, the African Union Mission in Somalia said in an e-mailed statement. The mission denied reports in the local media that soldiers killed civilians in the coastal town of Marka.
-Reporting by Bloomberg and Xinhua.