Ethiopian and Somali troops have captured the strategic Somali city of Baidoa from al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabab fighters, who vowed to avenge the loss.
Baidoa, 250km northeast of the capital Mogadishu, is one of the main bases of the anti-government group, and Wednesday’s capture deals a major blow to the fighters, who control large parts of southern and central Somalia.
« We have taken control of Baidoa without a single shot, it is a great day for the people who are now welcoming us warmly, » said Muhidin Ali, a Somali government military commander in Baidoa.
« We are at the centre now and moving towards every corners of the town, to ensure that we are in full control, » Ali added. « The enemy fled the city before our army has reached the town empty. »
Sporadic shooting was reported on the outskirts of the town, but residents said the city was largely calm.
« The takeover does not mean that the enemy will enjoy the city, there will be more bloodshed, » said Sheikh Mohamed Ibrahim, a Shabab commander.
« The areas they took will only be the graveyards of the Christian invading forces and their apostate Somali militia. »
Ethiopian troops, who moved into southern and western Somalia in November, began a major push on Tuesday towards Baidoa, which hosted the transitional parliament before Shabab rebels seized the town in 2009.
« There was no fighting, the Somali troops and the Ethiopian forces entered the town, setting up their base at the police station and the main crossroads in town, » said Abdulahi Hassan, a resident.
« People are out in the streets watching the soldiers who are gradually moving into the different parts of the city. »
The rebels are already struggling financially and face increasing pressure from regional armies and pro-government forces. The rebels still control the southern port town of Kismayo, a major source of income.
Witnesses had said earlier that Shabab fighters and their families were seen fleeing Baidoa towards rebel-held Afgoye.
« Many people, most of them al-Shabab families and supporters, are fleeing Baidoa, » said Hussein Ali, a resident. « They are heading towards the Afgoye.