Somalia’s government-led forces have captured an al Shabaab stronghold on the Indian Ocean coast, the defense minister said on Monday.
The capture of the stronghold represents one of their most significant victories since launching an offensive against the Islamist group last year.
Defense Minister Abdulkadir Mohamed Nur said in a broadcast on state-owned television that government forces on Monday took the port town of Harardhere as well as the nearby town of Galcad in central Somalia’s Galmudug region.
“Haradhere and Galcad districts have been taken from the hands of the Al Shabaab terrorists,” Defense Minister Nur said.
“This means al Shabaab is overpowered and gone. The remaining towns will also be liberated soon,” he said.
Harardhere was a major base for pirates hijacking merchant ships until 2011.
It was later taken over by Al Shabab, which first rose up against the government in 2007 before pledging allegiance to Al Qaeda.
Also on Monday, government forces, acting jointly with militias and regional forces from Galmudug and forces from the neighboring region of Puntland, captured Eldheere, another town in Galmudug, a senior Puntland forces officer, Mowlid Mahad, told Reuters news agency.
Deputy telecommunications minister Hussein Ahmed, one of several senior officials embedded with the troops that advanced on Haradhere, told AFP news agency that the port had been a key supply route for Al Shabab for both people and goods.
Al Shabab’s spokespersons could not immediately be reached for comment.
Al Shabab has been waging a bloody insurgency against the weak internationally-backed central government for about 15 years, carrying out attacks both in Somalia and neighboring countries which sent troops to help in the fight against the militants.
Although forced out of the capital Mogadishu and other main urban centers more than a decade ago, Al Shabab remains entrenched in parts of rural central and southern Somalia.
President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud had declared “all-out war” on the group after taking office in May last year.
In recent months, the army and local clan militias have retaken chunks of territory in the central states of Galmudug and Hirshabelle in an operation backed by US air strikes and an African Union force.
The successes have led some officials to claim Al Shabab is on its last legs. However, experts have cautioned that the group has been pushed out of major towns before only to regroup and reclaim areas the army does not have the capacity to hold.
“The make or break is not in the offensive phase but in everything that comes after that,” said Omar Mahmood, International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for East Africa.
“Al Shabab is definitely under pressure but they play a long game,” he added.
The group has responded to the military pressure with a series of high-profile attacks in Mogadishu and other cities, including car bombs this month that killed at least 35 people.
Hassan Mohamed, a former military officer, said the government should replicate its co-operation with clan-based militias across the country.
“Al Shabab would be extinct if government and clans were launching attacks in the entire country at the same time,” he said.