Amisom attacks Mogadishu rebel positions
Mogadishu - African Union-backed Somali government forces launched a fresh offensive Friday to seize holdout Islamist Shabaab positions in the war-torn capital Mogadishu, officials and witnesses said.
Heavy fighting broke out at dawn as troops supported by tanks and artillery from the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) moved into the capital's northern Heliwa and Gupta suburbs, still held by the al-Qaeda linked Shabaab.
"The government forces assisted by Amisom peacekeepers took control of the small part in northern Mogadishu where violent elements have remained," Somali military commander Abdulahi Ali told reporters.
"Our troops fought bravely, achieving their objective to secure the northern frontier of the city," Amisom said in a statement, reporting to have taken control of the Mogadishu University and Barakat Cemetery areas.
Hardline Shabaab fighters abandoned fixed positions in most of Mogadishu last August but continue to surround the city, as well as controlling small pockets on the outskirts.
The fighters have instead largely switched to guerrilla tactics in Mogadishu, launching a string of attacks including roadside bombs and grenade explosions against the Western-backed government and AU troops.
Amisom boasted the assault had allowed it for the "first time... to secure an area outside" the city, although it has pushed outside the city in other sections in earlier assaults against Shabaab positions.
Final military offensive
"This is a final military offensive to eliminate terrorists from the city," Ali said, adding there were no casualties on the government side so far.
Two Amisom soldiers were wounded in the assault, the AU said.
"There was heavy fighting - we saw Amisom troops alongside tanks and TFG [government] forces advancing onto Heliwa and Gubta areas, al-Shabaab fighters were returning fire but they were pushed back," said Ahmed Samow, a witness.
"Amisom is firing heavy artillery and I saw many troops moving deep into the areas that have remained in Al-Shabaab hands," said Samiro Abdulkadir, another witness.
Shabaab commanders confirmed the fighting but declined to give details.
Regional armies are pushing against Shabaab positions in Somalia, with Kenyan forces in the far south, Ethiopian soldiers in the west and African Union forces in Mogadishu made up of 10 000 troops from Uganda, Burundi and Djibouti.
Despite aid efforts, up to 250 000 people face starvation in the famine zones, while some four million Somalis are in urgent need of aid across the Horn of Africa country, according to the UN.