African peacekeepers and Somali government forces flushed Islamist rebels out of one of the few pockets of the capital Mogadishu still under militant control, a spokesman for the peacekeeping force said.
Residents said artillery shells from both sides rained down on Huriwa, one of two suburbs in north Mogadishu where the U.N.-backed government exercises no control.
“We captured Huriwa district after a joint operation by the government and AMISOM (peacekeepers) this morning” Paddy Ankunda, a spokesman for the African Union force, told Reuters.
“We want to push al Shabaab to an area out of mortar range … so that their mortars cannot reach Mogadishu residents,” he said.
Some residents said enclaves within Huriwa remained in the hands of the rebels, but that most was under government control.
The latest wave of fighting in Huriwa and parts of nearby Kaaraan district followed sustained shelling by the rebels in the area last week that killed ten civilians, AMISOM said.
The new offensive comes at a time concerns are growing at the government’s failure to secure control of the entire coastal city after the al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab group pulled almost all its fighters out of the capital in August.
A suicide bombing on Oct. 7 which killed more than 70 people, al Shabaab’s deadliest strike in Somalia since they launched their insurgency in early 2007, showed the militants were still capable of major attacks.
Residents said tanks from the peacekeeping force and government armoured vehicles thrust into Huriwa from three sides amid a hail of bullets over the weekend.
“Shells from both sides have been landing on us. Before today, we feared for our lives but now we are happy to see the AU tanks in our village,” said mother-of-five Shukri Gedi.
Some mortar shells struck a children’s hospital for the second time in three months, killing one worker and forcing other medical staff to evacuate the clinic.
“The hospital cannot function at the moment. This zone has become a battlefield,” said Ahmed Mohamed Ibrahim, director of the SOS children’s hospital, who is based in Kenya’s capital Nairobi.
An ambulance service coordinator said there were likely to be casualties but that roads to the Huriwa neighbourhood had been blocked.
AMISOM’s force commander, Major General Fred Mugisha, told Reuters last week his soldiers could drive the insurgents out of Mogadishu within six months if troop levels were boosted by a third to 12,000.