Ethiopian and Somali troops have seized the strategic town of Baidoa in south-central Somalia from the radical Islamist group Al Shabaab.
The town, 160 miles from the capital Mogadishu, was a stronghold for Al Shabaab, and its most important base after the southern port of Kismayo.
Tanks and infantry troops entered Baidoa on Wednesday following a gunfight, according to the Associated Press. Al Shabaab fighters fled to surrounding jungle areas.
In a website statement, the group said its fighters had conducted a tactical retreat, and threatened guerrilla warfare in response.
Ethiopian Foreign Ministry spokesman Dina Mufti told Bloomberg that Ethiopian forces will leave Baidoa “as soon as possible.”
“As soon as peace and stability is realized we will hand it over to the legitimate owners, Somalia,” he said.
Ethiopian soldiers entered Somalia in December, capturing the central town of Beledweyne from the Islamists. Along with Somali forces, they seized two villages earlier this week in a push to seize Baidoa.
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Al Shabaab still controls much of southern and central Somalia, but is under increasing pressure from Kenya forces in the south.
It was ejected from Mogadishu by Somali troops and African Union (AU) forces last year, though it continues to stage suicide attacks in the capital.
Baidoa is a major loss to Al Shabaab. The main road linking Mogadishu to the south-west and parts of Ethiopia and Kenya runs through it, it is the business route for most commodities transported from Mogadishu to other towns in the region, and its airport is thought to have been used by the group to secure weapons, according to the BBC.
Wednesday’s developments came as the 15-member UN Security Council unanimously agreed to increase the number of AU troops in Somalia from 12,000 to 17,700, Sky News reported.
The resolution passed by the council and prepared by the UK also gave the African forces a tougher mandate to attack Al Shabaab militants, and substantially increased international funding for the military operation.
The UK is to host a major conference on Thursday aimed at bringing an end to the conflict that has wracked Somalia over the past two decades. Senior representatives from more than 40 government and international organizations are expected to attend.
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