African Union and Somali troops have captured the strategic town of Afgoye from al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabab fighters without major resistance, declaring a military breakthrough, officials have said.
"We have crossed the River Shabelle and we are now there in Afgoye. We hold the town," AU army spokesman Paddy Ankunda said on Friday. "We have been fighting since Tuesday to achieve this objective and we have achieved it now."
"There was some brief resistance but we have crushed that," said Somali army commander Mohamed Abdullah.
Columns of AU and Somali troops backed by tanks launched the long-awaited attack on Afgoye four days ago, marching northwest 30km from the capital Mogadishu to the town, an area crowded with displaced people.
"The Shabab are fleeing the town, they are running away into the bush," said Ankunda, adding that AU troops had also secured the roads leading from Afgoye, which controls a key route from southern Somalia to the capital.
"There is some shooting here and there, but mostly it is calm ... We control all the road junctions out of Afgoye," he said.
More than 400,000 people were living in the Afgoye region at the start of the year, the world's largest concentration of displaced people, according to the UN.
Impoverished settlements of plastic and rag huts crowd an area that was last year gripped by famine. Its capture is hoped to allow access by aid workers, until now banned from helping the people by draconian orders from al-Shabab.
The UN refugee agency reports over 6,000 civilians have fled since the assault on Afgoye began, although aid workers fear that more people not included in that assessment may have fled into the bush.
Officials hope that the taking of Afgoye will deny al-Shabab a base from which to continue its recent spate of attacks on the capital.
Many fighters had shifted to the area after pulling out of fixed positions in Mogadishu last August and launching a campaign of suicide and grenade attacks.
Elsewhere, Somali troops were reported to be pushing northward toward the al-Shabab-held town of Balad, which lies some 35km north of Mogadishu.
Balad controls a key bridge across the River Shabelle, and lies on the road to the important city of Jowhar.
The loss of Afgoye to al-Shabab is another major blow for the group, which have been on the backfoot for several months.
AU and Somali troops have made significant gains in recent months against fighters, although the group remains a major security threat.
Somalia's weak and Western-backed transitional administration has less than three months to set up a permanent government, but the leaders have been riven by bitter internal divisions and tarnished by accusations of gross corruption.
The international community has expressed concern it is failing to meet key deadlines, but leaders this week committed themselves to choosing a new parliament by July 20, and a new president by August 20.