AU-backed Somali forces capture town from Islamists

MOGADISHU - Somali government forces backed by African Union troops captured a sixth settlement in the latest advance in their renewed offensive against Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab fighters, a spokesman said Friday.
Shebab gunmen are reported to have fled ahead of the assault on Thursday on the small town of Buula Burde, in the southern Hiran region bordering Ethiopia, Ali Houmed said, spokesman of the African Union's AMISOM force.
"There was some fighting at the entrance to the town as the Shebab tried to ambush and attack our forces, but they did not last long," Houmed said.
"Their forces disappeared as we advanced to secure the town," he added.
Hardline Shebab insurgents once controlled most of southern and central Somalia but withdrew from fixed positions in Mogadishu two years ago.
However, guerrilla units stage regular deadly attacks in the capital Mogadishu, and claimed responsibility for last year's deadly attack in neighbouring Kenya, when commandos stormed the upmarket Westgate mall, shooting shoppers and hurling grenades.
Government and AU troops have also come under repeated hit and run attacks in rural areas surrounding the settlements they capture.
AMISOM chief Mahamat Saleh Annadif boasted that the capture of Buula Burde was "a major victory", in a statement released late Thursday, calling the dusty settlement a "supply nerve centre" for the Shebab.
After a series of sweeping victories in 2012, AMSIOM had remained largely static, hampered by limited troops and air power to advance again.
But the UN-mandated force launched a new offensive earlier this month against the Islamist fighters, after Ethiopian soldiers joined to push troop numbers to some 22,000.
The UN reports that thousands of civilians are fleeing to escape expected fighting, warning that the offensive is expected to "directly affect scores of districts and regions" where some three million people live.
"Humanitarian access due to the volatile security situation remains a major challenge," the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in a statement.
UN envoy to Somalia Nicholas Kay this week told the Security Council the offensive would be "the most significant and geographically extensive military advance" since AMISOM started operations in 2007.
But Kay also warned the security situation in the capital Mogadishu had "deteriorated" in the last three months.
Recent Shebab attacks in the capital have targeted key areas of government or the security forces, in an apparent bid to discredit claims by the authorities that they are winning the war against them.
"Times are tough, and in the short term, may get tougher," Kay warned.