Somalia troops have captured a southern town from al-Shabab insurgents, the president said Thursday. The takeover was the latest blow to the rebel group, which has been forced out of swaths of territory over the past two years.
The militants described the withdrawal from Baardheere, about 300 kilometers (190 miles) east of Mogadishu, as a tactical retreat.
Because of its hills in the outskirts, Baardheere has been the main stronghold of al-Shabab in the region since 2009 and has been a target for drone strikes on al-Shabab leaders.
Somali troops and African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) peacekeepers have been fighting al-Shabab to try to wrest control from areas it holds in central and southern Somalia over the past weeks.
Al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab, which wants to topple a Western-backed government and impose its own strict interpretation of Islam on Somalia, has been driven out of major strongholds by the African and Somali forces but continues to launch bomb and gun attacks against officials and politicians.
"Our Somali National Army, supported by our partners in arms, yesterday secured one of the few remaining hide-outs of al-Shabab, the great city of Baardheere," President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud said in a statement. "Let there be no doubt anymore: The fight to secure our country may be hard, but my commitment and those of our partners and the resilience of this nation have never been stronger."
Al-Shabab said the group's fighters would return.
"We had been in Baardheere district for years, but we have abandoned for tactics. The district is now in AMISOM hands," sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, al-Shabab's military operations spokesman, told Reuters. "However, rest assured, they will never rest, and one day Baardheere will return to our hands. We are not far — we are just on the edges of the town."
On Wednesday, Kenya Defense Forces said its troops — part of AMISOM — had captured a bridge linking the road to Baardheere Bridge, a gateway to Gedo region, which it said was vital to al-Shabab's ability to transport weapons, fighters and contraband goods.
KDF said it killed 24 al-Shabab fighters in capturing the bridge.