MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Somali forces pushed deeper into rebel-controlled pockets of Mogadishu, the president said on Friday, as the beleaguered government sustained its offensive against insurgents in the city and in southern Somalia.
In the border town of Balad Hawa, a few kilometres from Kenya, residents reported gun battles and volleys of artillery fire between government-allied militia and al Shabaab militants.
Warning against a fresh wave of suicide attacks, President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed's government has said it will keep up its attack until the hardline Islamists are routed from the capital.
"Our forces have taken more positions today," Ahmed told a news conference. It was not possible to get al Shabaab comment.
Militants have waged a four-year insurgency against the largely ineffective U.N.-backed government and control large chunks of southern and central Somalia. Counter-terrorism experts say the lawless nation is a haven for foreign jihadists.
In the past few weeks, Somali forces have clawed back parts of Mogadishu and now control 70 percent of the city, the government says.
Deputy military commander General Abdikariin Dhagabadan said militants from al Shabaab, which Washington says is al Qaeda's proxy in the Horn of Africa nation, had retreated into the Bakara market, a rebel stronghold.
"We see government forces advancing towards al Shabaab bases but we don't know who is winning. All I can say is that this is the worst fighting for months in our district," said 54-year old resident Hawa Said.
Somali troops backed by government-friendly militia have also launched operations in several towns across central and southern Somalia including the al Shabaab-controlled border town of Balad Hawa, a few kilometres from both Kenya and Ethiopia.
Somali troop numbers have been bolstered by the deployment of hundreds of new recruits trained in Kenya and Ethiopia, local residents and security sources said.
Before dawn on Friday, a Reuters witness watched a convoy of Somali military lorries escorted by Kenyan troops leave the northern Kenyan town of Isiolo headed north to the border.
Some residents reported Ethiopian troops had crossed into Somalia and clashed with al Shabaab. Soldiers from Ethiopia, which invaded Somalia in late 2006 and drove an Islamist administration out of Mogadishu, spawning the current insurgency, routinely cross the border for short periods.
"Neighbouring countries are training troops and offering political support but are not directly involved in the ongoing fighting," Defence Minister Abdihakim Haji Fiqi told Reuters.
Kenya says it has beefed up security along the border to prevent the conflict spilling over. The United Nations refugee agency said the fighting forced 300 Somalis to flee into Kenya.
Long Expected Government Offensive Begins
February 25, 2011: The long (for nearly a year) rumored TNG (Transitional National Government) offensive against the Somali Islamic radicals has apparently begun in the last few days. Al Shabaab, and their smaller allies, have been pushed out of Mogadishu neighborhoods long held by the Islamic radicals, as well as areas on the Kenyan and Ethiopian borders. There have been several hundred casualties, about a third of them civilians, but most of the remainder have been Islamic radicals. In Mogadishu, government troops also captured over 1,500 meters of trenches al Shabaab had dug, to enable them to get close to government and peacekeeper bases without being seen or shot at.February 24, 2011: A bomb went off at a Kenyan hospital, near where the Somali and Ethiopian borders meet. No one was hurt, but bullets continued to hit the hospital from fighting in nearby Somalia. Several hundred more Kenyan troops were sent to this part of the border, in case armed Somalis tried to cross. The fighting in Somalia is between TNG troops who recently completed training in Ethiopia, and members of Islamic terror groups al Shabaab and Ahlusunna al Islam. Further north, Ethiopian troops attacked al Shabaab fighters who were just across the border. The TNG/AU offensive in Mogadishu continued.
In Mogadishu, a major offensive by AU peacekeepers and newly expanded TNG forces have pushed al Shabaab out of a part of the city (the Defense Ministry compound) that the Islamic radical group had been using as a base, along with a nearby factory buildings. Two soldiers and six peacekeepers, and a dozen