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Somali Government Forces say Insurgents Pushed from Strategic City

Forces loyal to Somalia's embattled government say they have pushed out Islamist insurgents from the strategic capital of Beledweyne in the central Hiran region. But the insurgents claim they made a tactical retreat and have not been defeated. Controlling Beledweyne has long been a vital goal for the Somali government.

According to a local lawmaker, Mohamed Dhaqane Elmi Aar, Somali government forces assumed full control of Beledweyne on Sunday after driving Hisbul Islam rebels out of town.

The Somali parliament member says the insurgents are on the run and Somali troops have been dispatched to capture them so they can be put on trial.

But the head of Hisbul Islam in the Hiran region, Mohamed Abdullahi Hussein, says his fighters are still in the city, awaiting new orders.

Hussein insists Hisbul Islam made a tactical retreat Sunday because it was not possible to fight without causing civilian casualties. He says new military operations are being planned to take back the town.

For the past several months, Beledweyne, near the Ethiopian border and about 400 kilometers north of the Somali capital Mogadishu, has been divided between government and pro-government forces in the east of the city and Hisbul Islam rebels in the west. Other key towns in Hiran, Middle Shabelle, and southern regions of Somalia are in the hands of an al-Qaida-linked extremist group called al-Shabab, which joined forces with the fundamentalist-nationalist Hisbul Islam group earlier this year.

Beledweyne is considered strategic because it connects the central regions to Mogadishu, where al-Shabab and Hisbul Islam fighters are battling to overthrow the U.N.-backed government of Islamist President Sharif Sheik Ahmed.

On Saturday, the Somali media reported a convoy of heavily armed Ethiopian troops crossed into the Hiran region and established a checkpoint at Kala-Beyr junction, located about 20 kilometers south of Beledweyne. Somali journalists said it was not immediately clear if the Ethiopian troops have been deployed there to support Somali government forces in Beledweyne or whether the troops were on a separate mission.

The Ethiopian government has acknowledged conducting cross-border reconnaissance missions since ending its two-year military occupation of Somalia in January. But Addis Ababa has repeatedly denied charges that it is sending troops to Somalia to intervene in the conflict.

In late May, Somalia's Minister of Internal Security, Omar Hashi Aden, led a group of Ethiopian-trained Somali troops in an unsuccessful bid to dislodge the rebels from Hiran. On June 18, al-Shabab carried out a suicide bombing at a hotel in Beledweyne, which killed the minister and dozens of other people.

Days after the attack, the Somali government said al-Shabab insurgents were being backed by thousands of foreign fighters in Somalia and called for neighboring countries and the international community to intervene.

Only Uganda and Burundi have sent soldiers under the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia, known as AMISOM.

The African Union is under pressure to send additional battalions to reinforce its 4,300 peacekeepers in Mogadishu, who are now battling near-daily attacks from insurgents.

On Saturday, an AMISOM spokesman said a Ugandan peacekeeper was killed last week, bringing the AMISOM death toll to nearly two dozen since early 2007.