Somalia’s pro-government forces closed in today on bastions of the insurgent Shebab group, in their largest coordinated drive in years to wrest back the country from al Qaeda-inspired rebels.
The offensive started last week with a major battle in Mogadishu that saw government troops reclaim large swathes of the capital, where the government had long been confined to a few blocks by the sea.
But government and allied troops have in recent days opened new fronts.
The Western-backed Somali transitional government’s troops are backed by the 8,000-strong African Union mission in Somalia (AMISOM) as well as by the Sufi militia Ahlu Sunna wal Jamaa and tribal militias.
Their offensive aims to stretch a Shebab, who have controlled most of southern and central Somalia for three years with a limited number of men but supported on the ground by jihadi fighters from around the world.
Witnesses and officials said Ethiopia was trucking in troops to El Bur district, a key Shebab stronghold in central Somalia.
“I saw dozens of trucks belonging to the Ethiopian military heading towards El Bur. It looks like they are joining Ahlu Sunna’s war against the Shebab,” said one local resident, Ise Maalim.
A government official in Dolow district, further south, said the all-out offensive that had been promised by three successive prime ministers was finally under way.
“The war to eliminate the Shebab threat from the country has begun, we will not stop until we succeed in our goal to cleanse this country of Al-Qaeda and their Somali followers,” Abdifatah Ibrahim Gesey told AFP.
The towns of Bulo Hawo and Luq, near the Kenyan border, were recently recaptured from the Shebab, who witnesses said were abandoning some of their positions in the south to regroup for the battle over Mogadishu.
Bulo Hawo was conquered after a bloody battle which some security sources in the region said left at least 80 people dead, including women, but Luq was taken over without any fighting.
Ethiopia and the Somali government have denied direct Ethiopian involvement in the fighting but residents in the affected areas were adamant.
“The presence of Ethiopian troops in the battle is not a secret, they want to help us push away Shebab terrorists,” Bulo Hawo resident Mowliid Abdi said.
According to officials and witnesses, pro-government forces have also deployed around Beledweyne, a strategic town near the Ethiopian border. (AFP)