Mogadishu: Amisom attacks Shabaab positions
Mogadishu - African Union-backed Somali government troops attacked hardline Shabaab insurgent positions at dawn on Friday in the war-torn capital of Mogadishu, officials said.
An artillery barrage first poured down on a northeast district - which AU forces claim was already largely abandoned by civilians - before tanks and ground troops moved into the area.
"We have advanced on their last positions in Suqaholaha district, taking control of key locations," said Somali military commander Abdulahi Ali Anod.
"The operations will continue until we get rid of the terrorist remnants, who are now on the run," he added.
The assault is the latest in a long-running offensive to drive the al-Qaeda allied Shabaab from holdout positions, after most of the insurgents last year left fixed defences in Mogadishu and switched to guerrilla attacks.
The Suqaholaha neighborhood is the last main Shabaab stronghold in the anarchic capital, and the attack comes two weeks after AU troops launched a similar offensive in southern Mogadishu.
"It will extend the city's defences and deny the al-Qaeda backed terrorists important ground from which they have been targeting the city's population," the African Union mission in Somalia (Amisom) said in a statement.
Extremist Shabaab gunmen have been fighting to topple the weak Western-backed Somali government in Mogadishu, where the administration survives under the protection of the 10 000-strong AU force.
"There was heavy shelling by the Amisom peacekeepers this morning, and now we see their tanks and infantry have entered the area. I saw three injured soldiers carried on a pickup truck," said one witness, Abdulahi Nuradin.
Aerial and ground assaults
"The Somali troops and their allied Amisom forces are advancing onto Suqaholaha. There was heavy fighting this morning but now the sound of the gunfire is going down," said Ahmed Yare, another witness.
Somalia has had no effective government since 1991 and in recent years the Shabaab rebels and other groups have taken an increasing hold on large parts of the country.
Osama bin Laden's successor Ayman al-Zawahiri announced last week that Shabaab fighters had joined forces with al-Qaeda.
But the Shabaab rebels have been weakened since Kenya and Ethiopia deployed forces late last year to the lawless Horn of Africa country to defeat the insurgents they blame for causing insecurity in the region.
The Kenyan forces in the far south have carried out aerial and ground assaults against the extremist militia, while Ethiopian troops in the west last week wrested control of the southern Baidoa town from the rebels.
However, experts warn the Shebab are far from defeated and remain a major threat, especially if they switch to guerrilla tactics as they have done with devastating impact in the capital, where bomb and grenade attacks are common.
Last week, an international conference in London pledged to help end the chaos in Somalia, which for the past 20 years has had no central government and has been at the mercy of warlords, pirates and Islamist extremists.