African Union and Somali government forces have captured the town of Bariire, a strategic militant base in the south of the country, officials and witnesses said Saturday.
Commanders said the Islamist al-Shabab group fled following heavy fighting outside the town in which the joint troops approached from three directions.
Bariire was one of al-Shabab's strongholds in the south and only 45 kilometers (27 miles) from Mogadishu, the country's capital.
"The joint troops attacked the town from three directions, forced the militants to flee and secured its control," Abdinasir Alim Ibrahim, a district commissioner in nearby Afgoye, told VOA's Somali service. "Hopefully, the next target will be Toratorow, and then we will proceed to other towns and cities controlled by the militants."
Seven civilians were reportedly killed and four injured when a minivan they were traveling in ran over a land mine as they fled the town. But Ibrahim could confirm the deaths of just four civilians and injuries to three others in the incident.
Witnesses told VOA on condition of anonymity that they saw about a dozen military personnel supporting the Somali and AU forces as they moved into the city.
Somali government officials confirmed the involvement of the non-African foreign personnel in the attack, but they declined to comment on their nationalities.
In April, dozens of American soldiers were deployed to Mogadishu to train and equip Somali and AMISOM (African Union Mission in Somalia) forces.
Somalia's defense ministry said the U.S. team — mainly based at Baledogle airfield, a former Somali air force base in Lower Shabelle region — has assumed the role of training and equipping the Somalia National Army, and also is advising and assisting troops in their operations against the militants.
Despite facing pressure from Somali government forces backed by AU troops and American advisers, al-Shabab still controls towns in south and central Somalia, and also continues to maintain a strong presence in many rural areas.
Bariire has been a key target for Somali and AU troops. Militants have used the city as a military base from which to organize attacks they carry out in Mogadishu, and to run courts in which they impose strict Sharia, or Islamic law.
"They had courts where they forced people in the region to submit their civilian cases, and they also had an administrative office that organizes attacks against the Somali people, so the town's fall is strategically important for us," said Ibrahim.
In May, a U.S. Navy SEAL was killed and two troops were wounded in a raid on an al-Shabab militant compound in the town, in what appeared to be the first U.S. combat death in the African country since the 1993 disaster portrayed in the film Black Hawk Down.
The White House has granted the U.S. military broader authority to carry out strikes in Somalia against al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab, the latest sign President Donald Trump is increasing U.S. military engagement in the region.