Ethiopian troops seize main rebel town
Mogadishu - Ethiopian forces on Monday seized the main base of the al-Qaeda-linked Shabaab insurgents in central Somalia, the latest stronghold the extremists have lost in recent months, witnesses said.
Ethiopian troops and fighters from the pro-government militia Ahlu Sunna Wal Jamaa seized El Bur town, some 150km south of the Ethiopian border, after a brief fire fight.
"Ethiopian troops have taken positions inside and outside the town, but most of the residents fled before they arrived," said Abdukadir Sahal, a resident.
The loss of the town tightens the net on the hard line Shabaab, who are facing attacks on multiple fronts by regional armies.
"There was brief exchange of gunfire on the outskirts of town but al-Shabaab fled... there are Ethiopian troops with armoured trucks, pulling heavy artillery weapons," Sahal added.
"There was no fighting inside El Bur, but al-Shabaab fighters are not far away," said Ahmednur Fodade, another resident.
Ethiopian soldiers in battle trucks began the advance on El Bur at the weekend, bolstering allied fighters from Ahlu Sunna at the central Somali town of Dhusamareb, before pushing on some 100km south.
El Bur is the fourth Shabaab stronghold to be seized by the Ethiopian forces, who deployed into lawless Somalia in November, after Kenya also sent troops into southern Somalia to battle the ruthless militia.
The Shabaab abandoned bases in the anarchic capital Mogadishu in August after their four-year bloody insurgency failed to topple the Western-backed Somali government, protected by a contingent of African Union troops.
Lost two key towns
The AU force is currently made up of some 10 000 soldiers from Burundi, Djibouti and Uganda, while Kenyan troops are due to integrate into the force.
However, while the Shabaab have lost key towns recently, they still remain a serious threat, especially as they continue a bloody campaign of suicide and mortar attacks.
Shabaab spokesperson Ali Mohamud Rage, speaking earlier on Monday before the fall of El Bur, said defiantly that the insurgents would not give up their fight.
"The mujahedeen fighters will not be deterred from implementing Islamic Shari'ah in Somalia and to defeat the Christian invaders - we will continue fighting and the enemy will be defeated God willing," Rage told reporters.
Two decades of lawlessness has seen the Horn of Africa nation carved up between multiple armed groups and extremist militia like the Shabaab.
Somalia has had no effective central government since president Mohamed Siad Barre was toppled in 1991.
Ethiopia's latest incursion is the second in five years. They toppled an Islamist movement after deploying in 2006, but they withdrew in 2009 after the group's hard line fighters - the Shabaab - mounted a bruising guerilla war.