Ethiopian troops fighting militant Islamist group al-Shabab have withdrawn from a key military base in central Somalia's Galgudud region, according to residents.
Heavily armed al-Shabab fighters took control of El Bur following the pullout of Ethiopian troops and a small number of Somali National Army soldiers early Monday.
The fall of El Bur was confirmed by Nur Hassan Gutale, the town’s district commissioner, who said Ethiopians did not tell them the reason of their withdrawal.
“The Ethiopians and our troops withdrew from the town and now it is under the control of the militants. The Ethiopians did not inform us about their withdrawal plan and once we saw them abandoning, our troops also abandoned,” Gutale said.
Residents of El Bur say al-Shabab militants traveling in pickup trucks moved into the town early Monday without a fight.
“The militants traveling in more than six pickup trucks mounted with anti-aircraft machine guns moved into town this morning. They took up the strategic positions, raised their black flags on the top of some buildings,” one of the residents told VOA on the condition of anonymity.
Gutale has accused both the al-Shabab militants and the Ethiopian troops of mistreating the civilians.
“Al-Shabab forced most of the residents to leave the town when the Ethiopians came three years ago. And the Ethiopians mistreated with some who remained in the town,” Gutale said. “The civilians had only two choices: to stay in the town and face the Ethiopian mistreatment or live as hostages under Al-Shabab."
The reason for the Ethiopian troops' withdrawal was not clear, and their military officials were not immediately available for comment.
El Bur was once the commercial hub and main stronghold of al-Shabab in central Somalia, but the group lost the town to Ethiopian troops serving under African Union peacekeeping mission known as AMISOM three years ago.
Analysts have warned the town was vulnerable to reoccupation by the militants because al-Shabab blocked all roads leading in and out, forcing almost all of the residents of the town to leave.
FILE - AMISOM soldiers and armored vehicles pass a woman riding a cart during a patrol at a village outside Mogadishu, Sept. 19, 2016. (Photo: J. Patinkin/VOA)
Some Ethiopian soldiers are in Somalia as part of AMISOM while others are there as a result of a bilateral deal with Somalia's federal government.
The Ethiopians serving the AU mission are responsible for securing Bay, Bakool, and Gedo regions in South Western Somalia, but they are also present in Hiran and Galgudud regions, where they have been moving into towns and withdrawing from others at will.