ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia - African Union and Somali government troops are said to be nearing victory in a lightning offensive against al-Shabab insurgents northwest of Somalia's capital, Mogadishu.
A statement issued Wednesday says African Union forces made “significant progress” in the first 24 hours of an operation in the strategic Afgoye corridor between Mogadishu and the regional capital of Baidoa.
The statement says a senior al-Shabab rebel commander was killed during the fighting and a convoy of cars in which he was traveling was destroyed. It gave no further details, but other top officials linked to al-Qaida have been the targets of drone strikes.
Somalia's Defense Minister Hussein Arab Essa told VOA the first stage of the AMISOM offensive is almost complete.
"They successfully conducted an operation where they inflicted huge damage to al-Shabab and al-Qaida and captured new territories toward Afgoye, and we are hopeful in next 24 to 48 hours we will capture Afgoye and go even further," said Essa.
The heaviest fighting is reported in an area that is home to the largest community of internally displaced people in the world. Four hundred thousand people forced from their homes by famine and war are said to be surviving in squalid camps.
Essa said the two-fold objective of the offensive is to secure the Mogadishu-Afgoye road, and to ensure the safety of civilians.
"The targets are to make sure we connect all regions of Somalia and that operation is on target. However, our mission is always to make sure the safety of the population in the area where the attacks are going to be," said Essa, who spoke to reporters at African Union headquarters, where he is attending talks on Somalia's political transition.
Al-Shabab has held the Afgoye corridor for years in its campaign to topple Somalia's United Nations-backed transitional government. But after being driven out of Mogadishu earlier this year, the rebels have been forced to retreat to their mostly rural strongholds.
Al-Shabab's military weakness has given rise to hope that the political process currently underway might lead to establishment of Somalia's first elected government by August.