Somali forces capture al-Shabab militia stronghold
PHOTO CAPTION: Representational photo — a Somali soldier is seen during training, April 18, 2021. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech Sgt. Daniel Asselta via U.S. Defense Visual Information Distribution Service)
MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Somalia's army and allied fighters on Friday captured the town of El Buur, the al Shabaab militia's main stronghold in the country's central region, a significant breakthrough in the government's campaign against the al Qaeda-linked group.
The capture of the El Buur town in Galmadug state is one of the biggest victories in an offensive launched a year ago by the government and allied forces.
The campaign has pushed al Shabaab out of large swathes of territory in the centre of the country, although the group continues to carry out major attacks, and many analysts and even some fighting the offensive say government vows to eliminate the group are unrealistic.
Al Shabaab has mounted deadly attacks from El Buur across the region for 16 years.
"Victory to all Somalis. El Buur district, a major al Shabaab stronghold, has fallen into the hands of Somali forces this hour. The forces are inside the town now," said Ibrahim Sheikh Muhydin, Somalia's army chief, in a speech broadcast live on Facebook.
"The capture of El Buur will completely stop the misery meted out by al Shabaab. There will be peace and prosperity."
While the battlefield success will be seen as a win for President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who has promised to wipe out al Shabaab in the next five months. The government has in the past struggled to hold areas it has captured or to stop the group's deadly bombing campaign.
The government has promised a second phase of the offensive that will go after al Shabaab in southern Somalia, the group's traditional heartland, but hasn't said when that would begin.
The rare collaboration between the army and macawisley fighters has helped produce the most significant territorial gains against the militants since the mid-2010s.
"This is the first time the federal government is in Galmudug state to seriously fight al Shabaab," said Farah Aden, a macawisley fighter, adding that he expected the militants would revert to guerilla tactics.
"If the government gives us food and ammunition, we macawisley are enough to challenge al Shabaab," he said.
But even some macawisley say they are circumspect about what their mission can achieve.
"I am afraid that we will not eliminate al Shabaab in the near future," said Hassan Abdullahi, another macawisley fighter.
"The government has announced the war months before it wages it, which gives al Shaabab the chance and time to plant mines everywhere and to ready car bombs," he said.
Security analysts are sceptical of vows to eradicate the group, saying it has deep roots in communities across the country, while government forces have limited experience and capacity.
"If military pressure is designed to push toward the complete elimination of Shabaab, then I think we'll miss opportunities to resolve this conflict," said Omar Mahmood of the International Crisis Group think tank.
"I think the best-case scenario is the government puts pressure on Shabaab... and you get to some form of political engagement at some point," he said.
(Reporting by Abdi Sheikh and Aaron Ross; Writing by Hereward Holland; Editing by Aaron Ross and Jonathan Oatis)