The Somalia national army killed at least seven al-Shabab militants Thursday and destroyed their base during an operation in southern Somalia, officials and residents said.
Somali army General Ismail Sahardid, the 43rd Infantry Division commander, told VOA Somali that the forces took control of Bar-Sanguni town, 45 kilometers (28 miles) south of the coastal city of Kismayo.
"Our army launched a surprise attack on the militants' hideouts late Wednesday and continued pursing them since the early hours of Thursday," Sahardid said. "During the operation we killed seven of the militants, including local leaders of al-Shabab's Amniyat unit, responsible for the group's intelligence."
The general said that despite initial resistance, his forces destroyed several of the militants' bases and vehicles they have been using to transport fighters, and they recovered ammunition.
"We have inflicted heavy military losses on them and captured two of their vehicles mounted with anti-aircraft machine guns," Sahardid said.
Bar-Sanguni residents who spoke to VOA Somali on condition of anonymity said they heard explosions as government soldiers engaged in a gunbattle with the militants for several hours early Thursday.
"It was around just before dawn Thursday morning when the Somali army entered the town. We first heard a fierce exchange of heavy gunfire and explosions," one resident said.
"As the day wore on, we saw government soldiers taking strategic positions in the town and searching the al-Shabab military bases, with seven dead bodies of the militants lying in the streets," another resident said.
Bar-Sanguni, under al-Shabab control for many years, is where the militant group has been organizing guerrilla attacks against government soldiers and Kenyan troops serving under the African Union peacekeeping mission (AMISOM) in Jubaland state.
Tax on residents
Sahardid said the militants in this area have been imposing zakat, or a tax, on the local population.
"We have freed the local civilians who have been suffering under the militants' harsh control, where they have been extorting their money and their livestock through what they call zakat," said Sahardid.
The operation came as Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed and Michael Keating, U.N. special representative for Somalia, hailed the completion of a power-sharing agreement signed in December between Galmudug state and the Ahlu Sunna Waljama'a.
Ahlu Sunna is a moderate group that was founded to promote Sufi Islam in Somalia, which decided years ago to take up arms against the radical al-Shabab group, which is believed to be linked al-Qaida.
In an event held Thursday in the central Somali town of Dhuusa Marreeb — attended by Somalia federal and regional leaders and foreign diplomats — Galmudug state President Ahmed Duale Ghelle "Xaaf" and Ahlu Sunna leader Sheikh Shakir vowed to join forces in the fight against al-Shabab.
Under the power-sharing agreement, Sheikh Shakir will be the executive leader of Galmudug state.