MOGADISHU: Hundreds of pro-government troops swept into a Somali town north of the capital on Tuesday, forcing al-Shabab fighters to flee in the latest success against the al-Qaida-linked militants, witnesses and a military official said.
Troops encountered little resistance as they captured the town of Balad from al-Shabab fighters, said Somali military Col. Abdullahi Ali Anod. Balad sits 30 kilometers (20 miles) north of Mogadishu.
"Somali troops are on every corner in the town now. Al-Shabab fighters abandoned it a few hours ago," resident Habiba Hassan said by phone. "Fortunately the forces came while people were sleeping so no one felt any fear and the town changed hands peacefully."
"I am now speaking from the town's police headquarters and the anti-peace elements have fled to the outskirts" Anod said. "Our forces have captured the town after small gun battles. We shall keep moving forward until we cleanse them from Somalia."
The taking of Balad is the latest success for pro-government forces in a year of big gains against al-Shabab. African Union forces kicked al-Shabab out of Mogadishu last August. In May, African Union troops moved into the Afgoye corridor outside of Mogadishu, pushing into the capital's suburbs for the first time.
The capture of Balad leaves the rebel-held agricultural town of Jowhar vulnerable to attack. Al-Shabab's last remaining city stronghold is the port city of Kismayo. Kenyan leaders have promised that Kenyan troops will take control of Kismayo within the next two months.
Security in Mogadishu has improved since militants were pushed out of Afgoye, an agricultural center from which militants could stage attacks.