A day after government troops allegedly assisted by Ethiopian soldiers dug trenches around the base of the southcentral town of Baidoa, the Islamists said the township, which straddles three regions, had fallen without bloodshed.
Late on Wednesday, heavily armed Islamic fighters rode into Saakow township, about 340km southwest of the capital Mogadishu, without much resistance after Juba Valley Alliance militia loyal to Barre Shirre Hirale, the defence minister of the transitional government fled.
“We have taken control of Saakow, praise be to Allah and it was simple because we did not encounter any fighting when we entered the town,” Sheikh HassanDerow, an Islamic commander in Lower Juba region, told AFP by phone.
Residents confirmed the fall of the outpost, which straddles Bay, Gedo and Lower Juba regions.
They said the pro-governmment militia fled to the northern town of Bardheera, further north near Baidoa, about 250km miles northwest of the capital, amid fears they were regrouping for a fresh assault.
“Militiamen loyal to Hirale fled the town before the arrival of the Islamic militia,” said Mohamed Mumin Ismail, a resident contacted by radio.
“I left Saakow in the evening after Islamic militias had taken control of the town,” added Hussein Ahmed Duqo, a resident of the township.
But the JVA denied claims of fleeing, saying its fighters pulled out for strategic reasons.
“The withdrawal is a tactical move aimed at regrouping our fighters. We left the town for strategic reasons,” said Ahmed Abdullahi, a JVA militia commander told AFP, refusing to explain the strategy.
The seizure of Saakow came as Islamist forces continued massing near the town of Burhakaba, about 50km east of Baidoa, which was briefly occupied at the weekend by the government but re-taken Monday by the Islamists.
The government, allegedly backed by Ethiopian forces, dug trenches and erected defences around Baidoa girding for clashes with the Islamists, who have indicated the desire to seize the provincial outpost.
In Burhakaba, witnesses said the Islamists began to block fuel shipments from the port of Mogadishu to Baidoa in a move that could cripple the town, which is the temporary base of the transitional government, enfeebled by infighting.