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July 05, 2012

AU Forces Push al-Shabab Further from Mogadishu

by Gabe Joselow

BALAD, SOMALIA —  African Union forces in Somalia have pushed al-Shabab militants to the outskirts of Mogadishu, retaking several key areas in the past few weeks.

African Union forces patrol the streets of Balad, Somalia after seizing the town a little more than a week ago.

This farming community, some 30 kilometers northeast of Mogadishu, had been under al-Shabab control for nearly five years.  But now, residents say life has returned to normal.

Mohammed Ali sells cigarettes on the streets of Balad, an activity that was illegal under al-Shabab's strict Islamist rule.

“Everything was tough, you couldn't listen to radio or any music on your phone,' he said. "If they caught you, they would take out your SIM card [from your cellular telephone], give you a glass of water and tell you to swallow it.  Now we thank God that all those problems are gone.”

AMISOM says al-Shabab had already fled the town by the time their troops arrived.

But the militants continued to target military convoys passing through Balad with mines and explosives, like this cellphone activated improvised explosive device.

This bomb was found in an alley off the main road.

Colonel Steven Mugerwa commands AMISOM forces in Balad.  He says he needs more troops to defeat al-Shabab as they push farther away from the capital.

“If the United Nations can allow us to add on to the forces we have here in Somalia, I think we can do better then," said Mugerwa.

As AMISOM sweeps through small towns in pursuit of the militants, it is up to local administrators to maintain the peace.

People here have been without government services for years, and there is hope that a political transition next month will bring more development.

But local farmer Ali Sheikh Ahmed says people want only to return to their normal lives.

“I would like these farmers to be helped," he said. "The farmland here is productive.  Any aid might not help them much.  It is good if they produce their own food, and trust that their land will provide.”

AMISOM, meanwhile, has no plans to leave.  It has set up a base here, where it plans to continue operations against al-Shabab wherever it goes next.