Mogadishu: An alliance of pro-government fighters on Wednesday recaptured a southwestern Somali town previously held by the Shebab, the latest defeat inflicted on the extremist group.
Local clan militias trained in Ethiopia and the moderate Sufi religious group Ahlu Sunna wal Jamaa reclaimed Luq, a town some 400 kilometres (250 miles) northwest of the capital Mogadishu, without any fighting.
"Our forces took control of the town without fighting," Colonel Mohamed Osman Weli told AFP by phone. "The hardline elements ran away from us before we got to them, now we fully control the town."
Witnesses said the pro-government forces crossed over the neighbouring Ethiopian town of Dolow before marching on to Luq.
Further down the same road from Luq is the city of Baidoa, the former seat of parliament and one of the Shebab's current strongholds.
"There were no clashes this morning but we saw the pro-government militia enter the town from Dolow and they now control it," said Abdullahi Salat, a local elder. "They took the police station and control other official buildings."
Sheikh Abdullahi Sheikh Abdurahman, the spokesman of Ahlu Sunna, said they would rout their opponents from their strongholds in central Somalia. "We are planning an offensive against the last stronghold of the rebels," he told AFP. "Their time of rule and oppression will come to an end."
Witnesses reported seeing heavily-armed militia, some in military uniform, enter Luq town.
However, Sheikh Ibrahim Ali, a commander of the Shebab, an Al Qaeda-inspired group, said his men had not been defeated but had "retreated as a military tactic."
On Monday, the same pro-government outfit retook the nearby town of Bulohawo, which sits on the border with Kenya and had recently been under Shebaba control.
The forces which ousted the Shebab from Luq and Bulohawo include many fighters loyal to Barre Hirale, a prominent military leader from the Marehan clan dominant in the region who was ousted a year ago from Kismayo by a top Islamist leader Hassan al-Turki and the Shebab.
Ahlu Sunna wal Jamaa, a Sufi organisation with strong popular support that took up arms in recent months to repel the Shebab, recently inflicted heavy losses on Islamist hardline groups further up the Ethiopian border.
The group sprung to the limelight in late 2008 when they clashed with the Shebab over the control of two towns in central Somalia.
It accused the hardline Shebab militia of fostering insecurity in the lawless Horn of Africa country as well as killing opponents on grounds that they are enemies of Islam.
The Shebab and the more political Hizb al-Islam rebels launched an offensive to topple the internationally-backed government of President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed.
Sharif, a moderate Islamist who came to power in January, has faced stiff opposition from the hardline groups and his government controls only a handful of areas in the war-ravaged capital Mogadishu.
Picture: Hard-line islamist fighters exchange gun fire with government forces in Mogadishu. Photo: AFP