Al-Qaida linked rebels have surrendered Somalia's third largest city, Baidoa, without a fight, fleeing in the face of a joint offensive by pro-government forces and Ethiopian troops.
Al-Shabab rebel militias pulled out of Baidoa as truckloads of pro-government troops and Ethiopian tanks rolled in.
The deputy prime minister of Somalia's Transitional Federal Government, Mohamed Mahmud Ibrahim, said the al-Qaida linked militants offered surprisingly little resistance as they fled a city they won in hard fighting three years ago. The minister spoke by phone with VOA's Somali service.
He said al-Shabab forces withdrew without a fight, and government forces are in full control of Baidoa.
Ethiopian foreign ministry spokesman Dina Mufti called the re-capture of Baidoa a significant defeat for the rebels in a region that has been considered their stronghold.
"This is the beginning and the end for al-Shabab, and this is perhaps a big omen for the beginning of the peaceful situation for Somalis in general. This is the golden moment that the Somalis and all peace loving people in the region should capitalize on," said Mufti.
Residents contacted by VOA say Baidoa was calm Wednesday night. The strategic city is located on a main road 250 kilometers northwest of the capital, Mogadishu.
Al-Shabab once controlled most of southern and central Somalia, including most of the capital, but has steadily lost ground in recent months, despite a newly-formalized alliance with al-Qaida.
The group's fighters were reported Wednesday to have fled down the highway toward a rebel held town closer to the capital. Pro-Shabab websites quoted rebel leaders as saying they would regroup and switch to guerrilla warfare tactics.
The capture of Baidoa comes on the eve of an international conference on Somalia in London. Senior representatives of more than 40 governments and multilateral organizations are expected to attend.
Also Wednesday, the U.N. Security Council voted to increase the strength of the African Union military force in Somalia from 12,000 to more than 17,000. The increase, along with an expansion in its areas of operation, reflects Kenya's decision to join the so-called AMISOM force last October. AMISOM had previously been largely composed of troops from Uganda, Burundi and Djibouti.
Ethiopia also has sent several thousand troops into Somalia to support forces of the Transitional Federal Government. The Ethiopian troops operate independently of AMISOM.
The joint military offensive is putting pressure on al-Shabab from three sides. Kenyan forces have been moving steadily up from the south, the Ethiopian troops are pushing in from the west, and the AMISOM troops are expanding their reach south from their base in Mogadishu.
Somalia has not had a functioning central government since 1991.