Somalia’s government-led forces have captured an al-Shabab stronghold on the Indian Ocean, the defence minister said on Monday, in one of their most significant victories since launching an offensive against the group last year.
The forces took the port town of Harardhere and the nearby town of Galcad, Defence Minister Abdulkadir Mohamed Nur said in a broadcast on state-owned television.
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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 its allegiance to al-Qaeda.
“Haradhere and Galcad districts have been taken from the hands of the al-Shabab terrorists,” Nur said. “This means al-Shabab is overpowered and gone. The remaining towns will also be liberated soon.”
Al-Shabab’s spokespeople could not immediately be reached for comment.
The government and allied clan militias have forced the rebels from swathes of territory in central Somalia since launching a major offensive last August.
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.”
The group has responded to the military pressure with a series of high-profile attacks in the capital 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 cooperation 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 told Reuters.