African Union, Somali Troops Capture Islamist-Held Town

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Somali government troops and African Union forces seized the formerly Islamist-held town of Burhakaba on Wednesday, the latest loss for the al-Qaida linked Shebab fighters, commanders said.

Soldiers backed by tanks stormed the town from three directions but the hardline Shebab had already fled before the assault, said Somalia's deputy army commander Abdikarin Yusuf Dhegobadan.

"Our forces took control of Burhakaba without a fight, and we are clearing any bombs that might have been planted," he told reporters.

The capture of Burhakaba marks a key stage in efforts to open up the main highway from the capital Mogadishu running northwest to Baidoa, a major town wrested from the Shebab by Ethiopian troops last year.

Burhakaba lies some 160 kilometers (100 miles) northwest from Mogadishu, leaving some 60 kilometers (40 miles) until AU troops can reach Baidoa by road.

"The situation is calm and the government and AU troops are now patrolling in the streets," Mohamed Nurow, a resident, told Agence France Presse by phone.

Mahamet Saleh Annadif, AU representative for Somalia, said the capture of the town marked the "determination" of the 17,000-strong AU force "to support the people of Somalia".

The town is the latest in a string of Shebab bases to fall to AU and Somali forces in recent months, with Ethiopian troops also battling the extremists from the west.

However, the Shebab remain a potent threat, still controlling rural areas as well as carrying out guerrilla attacks in areas apparently under government control.

Some, retreating ahead of AU-led assaults, have relocated to the northern Golis mountains in Somalia's semi-autonomous Puntland region.

Somalia has been ravaged by conflict since 1991 but a new U.N.-backed government took power in September, ending eight years of transitional rule by a corruption-riddled administration.

Many have said the new government offers the most serious hope for stability since the fall of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.

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