Somalia's al-Shabab 'defeated' in Rabdhure town

image copyrightAFP
image captionSomalia's militants have pledged loyalty to al-Qaeda

Ethiopian and Somali government forces have seized a key town in central Somalia from the Islamist militant group al-Shabab, officials say.

At least 12 people were killed in heavy fighting for control of Rabdhure town in Bakol region, residents said.

The attack may signal the start of a new offensive against al-Shabab, according to a BBC reporter in Somalia.

Ethiopian troops are part of a 22,000-strong African Union (AU) force battling the militants in Somalia.

The BBC's Mohamed Moalimu in the capital, Mogadishu, says the fall of Rabdhure is significant, as it was a major al-Shabab base for attacks across the region.

It would be the first town the group has lost since September, when Mahaday in central Somalia fell to AU-backed government forces.

Bombings and mortar raids

Residents told our reporter the fighting had lasted for several hours, with both al-Shabab and Somali government forces suffering casualties.

image copyrightAFP
image captionTroops from neighbouring Ethiopia have vowed to help defeat the militants

Ethiopian forces did not suffer any casualties, they said.

Troops are now advancing towards Bakol's regional capital, Hudur, which is controlled by al-Shabab, our reporter says.

This has fuelled speculation that a new offensive against al-Shabab, which government officials have been threatening for a long time, is finally under way, he adds.

Al-Shabab, which is linked to al-Qaeda, controls much of south and central Somalia.

It lost control of Mogadishu in 2011, but has intensified bombings and mortar raids in the city in recent weeks.

At least 12 people were killed in a suicide bombing near the security service headquarters last Thursday.

Last month, al-Shabab fighters stormed Villa Somalia, the seat of government in Mogadishu, killing at least 11 people.

The group has waged an eight-year insurgency to overthrow the weak UN-backed government and create an Islamic state in Somalia.

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