African Union and Somali government forces have opened a key route after months of fighting, commanders said Tuesday, reaching the former Islamic stronghold of Baidoa by road for the first time.
Troops from the 17,000-strong AU force have been battling for almost a year to open up the 240 kilometre (150 mile) stretch of road -- a former stronghold region of Somalia's Al-Qaeda linked Shebab -- running northwest from Mogadishu.
Ethiopian troops fighting from the west captured Baidoa from the extremists last year, and AU troops later joined them, arriving by air.
But Baidoa had remained cut off from the capital as Shebab fighters still controlled the road to Mogadishu.
On Tuesday, the AU force said its soldiers had pushed the final 60 kilometres (40 miles) from Burhakaba, wrested from the Islamists in February.
"This significant move not only allows for free movement of the population, but also opens up this key supply route and allows for the provision of humanitarian aid," the AU force said in a statement.
AU troops made their first significant push outside Mogadishu in May 2012, when they captured the town of Afgoye from the Shebab.
The opening of the road comes as Ethiopian troops reportedly prepare to pull out of several southwest Somali regions it controls, and will potentially allow AU troops to bolster defences with heavy weaponry from their main base in Mogadishu.
Despite a string of losses in recent months, the Shebab remain a potent threat, still controlling rural areas as well as carrying out guerrilla attacks in areas apparently under government control.
The extremists retook the southwestern Somali town of Hudur just hours after Ethiopia pulled out there last month.
Somalia has been ravaged by conflict since 1991 but a new UN-backed government took power last year, ending eight years of transitional rule by a corruption-riddled administration.