Somali government forces supported by African Union peacekeepers and tanks on Tuesday took control of a key Islamist rebel base just to the north of the capital, officials and witnesses said.
The allied forces entered the town of Balad, 30 kilometres (20 miles) north of Mogadishu at around midday with no resistance from the Al-Qaeda affiliated Shebab rebels.
“We have taken control of Balad and the surrounding villages. The Shebab militants fled the area before we arrived,” General Ali Araye Osoble, Somali military spokesman said.
Whoever controls Balad controls a key bridge across the River Shabelle on the road to the city of Jowhar and the north of the country.
Osoble said the push into Balad was part of a broader military operation, carried out jointly with the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) aimed at wresting areas outside the capital from the Shebab.
Witnesses told AFP loud explosions followed the entry of the troops into the town but that calm was soon restored.
“Tanks, military trucks and infantry troops poured into the town. They set up bases at the police station and the central district offices,” Mohamed Gagale, a witness said.
Gagale said he saw army personnel raid houses and businesses after marching into the town.
“Shots were fired but no casualties have been reported. The army is now in full control,” Adan Ibrahim, another witness said.
The fall of Balad is the latest blow to the Shebab rebels who last month lost control of Afgoye, formerly one of their major strongholds on the outskirts of the capital.
Ever since they were pressured into abandoning their fixed positions in Mogadishu last August, the rebels have suffered a series of military losses, including major towns such as Beledweyne and Baidoa.
They have so far held on to the port of Kismayo, from which they draw most of their revenue.