Somali and African Union troops began an offensive against Islamist fighters in February, and the government on Tuesday said the forces destroyed the insurgents’ line of defense and retook key positions in Mogadishu in the last two days.
The offensive aims to break Islamists’ lock on large swaths of the country’s south and central regions. Al-Shabab, a Somali militant group with links to al-Qaida, has boxed in the government to just a few city blocks of the seaside capital. The group has instituted a Taliban-style system of rule, with strict edicts enforced by their own courts and public executions.
“The Somali forces have sworn that they will not stop the operation until the al-Shabab extremist elements are completely squashed from Somalia,” a government statement said.
The government has been promising a full-scale war against militants for years, but coordination among its poorly trained, seldom-paid government forces has delayed that push.
The AU force of 8,000 Ugandan and Burundian soldiers is leading the offensive. Dozens of AU peacekeepers and scores of civilians have died in the fighting.
An official with a bloc of East African nations, meanwhile, said the offensive against strongholds of the al-Qaida-linked group al-Shabab has opened corridors for aid groups to reach Somalis in need.
Civilians in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, have suffered through nearly two decades of violence, which started when the Horn of Africa nation’s last functioning government was overthrown in 1991.
Mahboub Maalim, executive secretary of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, a group of six East African countries, said he has asked humanitarian agencies to move with urgency to provide assistance to Somalis.
The U.N. also called for greater humanitarian access to support Somalis suffering from a drought and the conflict. Mark Bowden, the U.N.’s humanitarian chief for Somalia, said Tuesday that the failure of rains in October and December has led to drought conditions that have compounded the plight of 2.4 million Somalis in need of aid.
“The United Nations is striving to alleviate the suffering in Somalia. However, so much more could be done with greater access,” Bowden said. “Access to populations in need is shrinking at the same time as their needs are expanding, particularly in the south, where 80 percent of the people most in need live.”
Al-Shabab, Somalia’s most dangerous insurgent group, last year started blocking food deliveries to hundreds of thousands of Somalis. Many aid groups have been forced to reduce or stop providing services.
Maalim said that the offensive was in response to an appeal from Somalia’s president to IGAD heads of state for assistance in opening up aid corridors.
The most recent violence killed at least three civilians, according to Ali Muse, the head of Mogadishu’s ambulance service.
“One man died in our district today after a mortar landed on his house,” said Ismael Ganey, a witness. “The shrapnel cut off the man’s neck and he died on the spot.”