Somali, AU troops capture another Shebab stronghold

Mogadishu (AFP) - Somali government troops backed by African Union forces on Friday captured the Shebab stronghold of Dinsor, the second town seized from the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamists this week, the defence minister said.

While Dinsor fell without a major fight, with Shebab gunmen fleeing ahead of the assault, witnesses have reported heavy casualties in the week-long offensive with civilians caught up in the fighting. Village elders reported that dozens of bodies have been buried.

"Our forces have secured control of Dinsor, and the insurgents have fled after losing the battle... the troops are now conducting security operations to clear the town," Somalis' defence minster, General Abdulkadir Sheikh Ali Dini, told reporters.

The fall of Dinsor, in Somalia's southwestern region and near the border with Kenya and Ethiopia, comes after the capture by AU troops of the nearby town of Bardhere on Wednesday. The two towns were some of the last remaining Shebab strongholds.

Witnesses confirmed the takeover of the southern town, saying the Shehab fled ahead of government and Ethiopian troops with the AU force, pulling out of the town on Thursday afternoon.

"Most of the residents fled so it looks like a ghost town," said resident Mohamed Added. "There are very few people remaining, most of them elderly."

The African Union Mission in Somalia, or AMISOM, last week launched "Operation Jubba Corridor" -- an offensive it said was aimed at flushing the insurgents out of rural areas in southern Somalia and which has involved Ethiopian and Kenyan forces.

- 'Mass killing' -

In the southern Bakool region, elders in five villages reported dozens of civilians killed.

"The number of civilians we have counted so far is over 50, but there are also more still missing after they have been arrested," said elder Abdulahi Isgowe. "We have never witnessed such a mass killing before."

"I have buried about 21 victims with my own hands near Burhduhule and we have sent people to help bury others killed," said Abdulahi Mohamed, an elder, adding women and children were among the dead. "Everyone is fleeing."

Bakool governor Mohamed Abdi said authorities were "sorry for any civilian casualties" but said he had not had any reports of the killings.

"The phone network is down so that I don't have details about what happened," he told reporters.

AMISOM troops were accused on Tuesday of killing civilians during fighting in the southern port of Merka, but dismissed witness reports of "several" deaths as a "devious allegation".

The Shebab is fighting to overthrow Somalia's Western-backed government which is propped up and protected by the 22,000-strong AMISOM force.

Efforts to defeat the Shebab will be a key part of talks this weekend when US President Barack Obama visits Kenya.

Deployed to Somalia since 2007, AMISOM has helped push back Shebab across much of the country's south, retaking towns and territory the group had held for years. US drone strikes have also taken their toll on Shebab, killing senior commanders, including the group's leader Ahmed Godane in September.

Under pressure in Somalia, Shebab has stepped up its attacks in neighbouring Kenya.

In September 2013 four Shebab gunmen killed at least 67 people in an assault on the Westgate shopping mall in the capital Nairobi. In April this year, four Shebab gunmen killed 148 people, most of them students, in an attack on a university in the Kenyan town of Garissa, the group's deadliest attack to date.

Kenyan army spokesman David Obonyo on Thursday said 24 Shebab fighters were killed in the battle to capture Bardhere. Kenyan troops with AMISOM seized a strategic bridge -- a key entry point for the southern Gedo region -- he called "a major operational milestone."