NAIROBI (AFP) – Attacks by Al Qaeda-inspired rebels last year in Mogadishu had left the African peace force in a tight spot, but the beefed up contingent has recently reclaimed the initiative in Somalia's capital.
The 9,000-strong force of Ugandan and Burundian troops deployed to protect the ailing Somali transitional federal government (TFG) has over the past five months regained significant ground in central Mogadishu.
The TFG and the African mission (AMISOM) had long been confined to a few blocks, unable to take to the battle to the Shebab, an Islamist insurgent movement that has controlled most of the Horn of Africa country for two years.
AMISOM's most spectacular foray came on February 23 when it seized Gashadiga, the former defence ministry, on the northwestern edge of the capital.
In a textbook infantry assault, the Burundian contingent reconquered the building, which had been used as a command centre by the Shebab, regaining around a kilometre on the road that marks the city's outer boundary.
The Burundian soldiers also captured a former dairy factory but failed to grab a nearby military base, both considered key positions for the control of Bakara market, which has for years been the Shebab's main Mogadishu bastion.
Meanwhile the Ugandan contingent, deployed in southern and eastern districts, has made steady progress, inching deeper into the city and securing Maka al-Mukarama, a vital thoroughfare linking the airport to the seaport and the presidential palace.
"It's an urban warfare, a very dangerous way of fighting on a extremely difficult terrain where you are vulnerable in front of the enemy," said one of AMISOM's commanders in the area, Lieutenant-Colonel Lukwago Mbuusi.
At the end of September, a fierce Shebab offensive which AMISOM struggled to contain and which routed government troops saw the insurgents move within 100 yards of Maka al-Mukarama, threatening to sever the TFG's lifeline.
The Ugandan effort is a painstaking sequence of short operations in which they reconquer the area block by block, securing every new patch with thousands of sandbags and hastily established military positions.
To slow AMISOM down and work around them, the Shebab had created an ingenious network of trenches and tunnels, which in some areas run over several hundred metres.
"They never move back without fighting. And when they lose ground, they immediately remobilise to retake it," said another Ugandan commander, Lieutenant-Colonel John Mugarura.
AMISOM now controls around half of Mogadishu and is gradually tightening its grip around Bakara market, the heart of the capital economic activity and a crucial source of funds for the Shebab.
The part played by Somali pro-government troops in the reconquest of Mogadishu remains very limited but AMISOM does however link up with some units on a case-by-case basis.
The African Union force was supported by men loyal to warlord Yusuf Mohamed Indahade in the Hodan district, by the Sufi militia Ahlu Sunna wal Jamaa along Maka al-Mukarama and by soldiers of colonel Osman Abdullahi "Agey" in Hosh.
"We are taking ground, we have advanced in several areas of Mogadishu... We'll continue, while trying to reorganise the TFG forces," AMISOM top commander General Nathan Mugisha said.
The ground recaptured in the capital, always the epicentre of Somalia's long-running conflict, comes as pro-government forces are also leading a major offensive on another fronts in southern and central Somalia.
"The Shebab now are scattered, trying to defend all fronts. Shebab are weakened, but they are recruiting," Mugisha said.
The force commander argued this was a turning point in the conflict and urged the world to help AMISOM break the back of the Islamist insurgency.
"The international community should come in to make sure this momentum is maintained," he said.