Nairobi — Somali government and African Union forces say they have recaptured territory that was held by the al-Qaida-linked militant group al-Shabab. A government official says the offensive is just the start of a fresh effort to oust the group from its remaining strongholds in Somalia.
Somali forces were supported by Ethiopian soldiers who belong to the AU force AMISOM in the operations against al-Shabab, which began on Friday.
"So far, over the weekend, we had at least five towns in Bay and Bakool region that Somali National Forces and AMISOM recaptured from al-Shabab," government spokesman Abdirahman Omar Osman told reporters, adding that there were no major setbacks.
Two of the towns are in the Gedo region, including Burdhubo, which VOA's Somali service reports is home to one of the largest al-Shabab bases in southern Somalia.
Residents reported hearing heavy fighting in the area on Friday, although an AMISOM spokesman told VOA that al-Shabab fighters are mostly retreating when they see the AU soldiers coming.
Regional forces had been successful in driving the militants out of major cities in the past, but until the recent operations, had not reclaimed significant ground since Kenyan troops took control of the port city of Kismayo in 2012.
"Our aim is to not stop this operation until we take over all the districts, all the areas that al-Shabab currently occupies," Osman said. He said the weekend fighting is just the beginning of a much larger military campaign.
To avoid power vacuums in newly liberated towns, Osman said the first priority for the government is to provide humanitarian aid, then to establish local administrations to deliver basic services.
In an audio statement posted on a pro-jihadi website, al-Shabab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane called for Somali citizens to take up arms against foreign forces.
"I call upon the fighters to defend the religion and to fight against the enemies," he said. "Ethiopian soldiers who have come thousands of kilometers should not outlast you," said Godane.
Al-Shabab, which seeks to establish Islamic law across Somalia, continues to control territory in some parts of the country and also retains the ability to wreak havoc in the capital Mogadishu.
Last month, al-Shabab fighters stormed the presidential palace, Villa Somalia. The president was unharmed but 17 people were killed.