FILE - Somali families, displaced after fleeing the Lower Shabelle region amid an uptick in U.S. airstrikes, sit under a tree at an IDP camp near Mogadishu, Somalia, March 12, 2020.
FILE - Somali families, displaced after fleeing the Lower Shabelle region amid an uptick in U.S. airstrikes, sit under a tree at an IDP camp near Mogadishu, Somalia, March 12, 2020.

WASHINGTON - Somali government troops, backed by African Union (AU) forces, have taken control from the al-Shabab militant group of a strategic town in the Lower Shabelle region, freeing dozens of children in the process, residents and official said.

The town of Kuntuwaarey, in the southwest of Somalia, located 208 kilometers from the capital, Mogadishu, has for many years been a strategic stronghold for al-Shabab.

The “Somali National Army, backed by units from the African Union peacekeepers, have taken control of this strategic town from the militants,” said Isaq Ali Subag, the minister of internal security for the region.

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Subag said al-Shabab had been using the town as a base to launch attacks on cities and towns in the region that are controlled by the Somali government.

“The militants have used the city as a military base from which to organize attacks they carry out in other parts of the region, and to run courts in which they impose taxes and other unfair sentences to innocent people,” he said.

Children freed

Following the capture of the town, the joint troops carrying out house-to-house searches freed 33 children from the militants, according to Somali military commanders.

“The 33 rescued children were held in an al-Shabab-run center in the town. They told us they were forcibly taken from their parents,” Colonel Isma’il Abdi Malin told government military radio. "The militants were indoctrinating the children to draft them into their ranks."

Al-Shabab has lost control of several towns in the past, but still controls large swathes of territory in rural areas and in the major cities, including the capital, Mogadishu. It remains capable of carrying out targeted assassinations and suicide attacks.

Danab offensive

Somalia’s U.S.-trained elite forces, known as Danab, along with Ugandan troops from the African Union Mission in Somalia, entered the town Friday, facing resistance from al-Shabab fighters. They killed at least four senior al-Shabab militants, including the group’s financial coordinator and operations commander, government military radio reported Saturday.

“The militants’ financial coordinator in the region, Mohamud Ahmed Gaboobe, and its operations commander in the town were among those killed during the military operation,” the radio service said.

Witnesses told VOA on the condition of anonymity they saw about a dozen non-African military personnel supporting the Somali and AU forces as they moved into the city.

Residents said many of the al-Qaida-aligned militants had begun withdrawing from the town early Friday as the troops advanced