Residents reported intense clashes and heavy artillery fire on the outskirts of Mogadishu as tanks and troops pushed out in a pre-dawn attack from Deynile, a suburb of the capital.
“Early this morning, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and the Somali National Army launched a carefully planned operation to bring security and stability to the people of the Afgoye corridor,” an AU statement read.
The troops are “making good progress,” the AU added, while the Somali army claimed that Shebab fighters were fleeing ahead of the advancing troops.
“The remnants of the Al-Qaeda militants have already suffered a major defeat and they have emptied their barracks in the area,” said Mohamed Osmail, a Somali military official.
“The army cut off a key road on the outskirts of Deynile, which the enemy has been using when organising attacks and transporting fighters to undermine the security of the city, they are no longer there now,” he added.
Witnesses said civilians in the battle zone were fleeing the fighting.
“Several artillery rounds struck the KM13 area, and families who had remained in the area started fleeing this morning — the fighting seems to be advancing on to Afgoye corridor,” said Muhidiin Adan, a resident in Deynile.
“I saw two AU tanks crossing streets near Deynile airstrip… they want to cut off the supply routes of Al-Shebab,” said Hassan Abdi, another resident.
Deynile commands access to the Afgoye corridor, an area some 30 kilometres (20 miles) northwest of Mogadishu, which is controlled by the Shebab.
Top Shebab official Sheikh Fuad Mohamed Shangole called on the people to rise up and attack the AU and government troops.
“The enemy wants to destroy the religion of Allah by attacking the mujahedeen fighters, be assured that the Army of Allah will win and the enemy will lose in the battle,” Shangole told the group’s radio Al-Andalus.
“I call on Muslims to unite to defend their religion and country from the enemy.”
Some 400,000 people, around one third of all the displaced people in Somalia, were still living in the Afgoye corridor at the start of the year, fleeing war or drought, according to figures from the UN refugee agency.
However, in recent months thousands of civilians have left Deynile for the capital, ahead of the expected assault on Shebab bases, where many retreated to after pulling out of fixed positions in Mogadishu last year.
“AMISOM are taking every precaution to prevent harm or injury to civilians – we will only fight when attacked by the Al-Shabab,” force commander Lieutenant General Andrew Gutti said in a statement.
“We ask the population of the Afgoye corridor to continue to stay in their places of residence, avoid unnecessary travel on main roads and not to stray far from their homes.”
AU and Somali troops have made significant gains in recent months against Shebab militants, although the Islamists have switched to guerrilla tactics in Mogadishu, including a series of suicide and grenade attacks.
Somalia’s weak and Western-backed transitional administration has until August to set up a permanent government, but the international community has expressed concern it is failing to meet key deadlines.
Fighting erupted in Somalia in the late 1980s, escalating into a brutal civil war following a 1991 coup, with rival militias, warlords and Islamist fighters battling ever since for control of the Horn of Africa nation.