A coalition of Somali and Kenyan troops have captured the strategic town of Afmadow from al-Shabaab militants, local media reported citing officials on Thursday.
The rebels gave up the town on Thursday without much resistance after it was surrounded by the coalition of Somali and Kenyan troops a day earlier. The seizure of Afmadow clears the route for a future offensive on the southern port city of Kismayo, one of the last remaining al-Shabaab strongholds.
Afmadow is located some 60 miles northwest of Kismayo. Somalia's Lower Juba region, which covers both Afmadow and Kismayo, has been under al-Shabaab's control since August 2008. With the fall of Afmadow on Thursday, al-Shabaab's control is now mostly limited to Kismayo and the towns of Jowhar and Mercer.
It was the second major setback for al-Shabaab in less than a week. On Monday, Somali and African Union troops had captured the Afgoye corridor, a strategic stretch of land between Mogadishu and the previously al-Shabaab held town of Afgoye, from the rebels.
Al-Shabaab is Somalia's most prominent and influential Islamist militant unit, and is branded a terrorist organization by the United States and most of the international community. The al-Qaeda aligned outfit is the military wing of the Islamist movement ousted by Ethiopia-backed Somali forces in 2006.
Until recently, al-Shabaab and other allied groups controlled large areas in southern Somalia where they enforced strict Islamic laws or Sharia. Apart from Ethiopian troops and militias aligned to the Somali interim government, the al-Shabaab has come under immense pressure from Kenyan troops as well as U.N.-mandated African Union peacekeepers deployed in the Horn of Africa nation.
Kenyan troops are currently in Somalia as part of a cross-border operation aimed at driving al-Shabaab militants away from the border separating the two nations. Since their arrival in Somalia last year, Kenyan forces have managed to capture several al-Shabaab strongholds.
Somalia has been without a functioning government since the fall of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre's government in 1991. Currently, the weak UN-backed interim government set up in 2004 is trying to enforce its authority in Somalia.
The latest development comes as the dead line set by the international community for completing the political transition process in the troubled Horn of Africa nation is due to expire in two months time. Last week, Somalia's political leaders took an important step in the implementation of the roadmap for completing the transition by agreeing to a timetable that will elect a new president by August 20.
After three days of discussion in Ethiopian capital Adis Ababa, leaders of the country's six political factions signed a deal last Thursday, committing themselves to the deadlines that are supposed to see a new federal system established in the east African country after elections. Under the deal, the president will be elected by a new parliament, which will be sworn in by July 20. The leaders also agreed on a draft constitution.
by RTT Staff Writer
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