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Stakes high for Somalia as large-scale offensive kicks off

According to Somali military officials, Al Shabab has been evicted from over 60% percent of cities and towns it held, including the port city of Kismayo and the coastal town Merca in the past four years, and the launch of the new offensive was accompanied by an usual televised speech by Somali president.

By Judy Maina, judy.maina@alleastafrica.com

NAIROBI – Allied African Union and Somali forces  have embarked on the country’s biggest offensive against Al Shabab, aiming to recapture the militant-controlled areas, where the tight, shrub-filled terrains and roadside bombs will pose a formidable challenge to the advancing troops.

State-run TV said the initial assault by the troops, did not encounter resistance, thus allowing them to seize  several villages where militants have maintained defensive lines in the neighboring Middle Shabelle and Lower Shabelle regions.

Despite the painless start which officials say could be bellying a complicated and arduous battle ahead, Al Shabab have rarely put stiff resistance against troops in previous battles, following which the group have subsequently resorted to guerilla attacks that became its favorite tactic following their ouster from the capital, Mogadishu in 2011.

Somali president Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed receives a honorary salute from army units prepared to go to the battlefields at the defense ministry in Mogadishu.

Addressing columns of troops heading to battlefields at the defense ministry in the Somali capital on Wednesday, Somali president Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed has pledged his army would liberate areas still under rebels’ control, calling on residents to cooperate with the advancing forces.

“Those killing our people, children and mothers must not be allowed to live one inch of our soil.” he said, wearing a military fatigue, and vowed that the Somali flag would be raised all over the country.

Tens of thousands of Somali troops from an array of the country’s forces have been drawn together to achieve that feat, with the support of the African Union forces.

According to Somali military officials, Al Shabab has been evicted from over 60% percent of cities and towns it held, including the port city of Kismayo and the coastal town of Merca in the past four years, and this time the launch of the new offensive was accompanied by an usual televised speech by Somali president.

But since then, the group’s grip has slowly crumbled. with more towns have been clawed back by Somali forces, albeit with the reliance on African Union forces support.

Somali president Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed shares moments with young children and residents following a speech for army units prepared to go to the battlefields at the defense ministry in Mogadishu.

“You’re carrying huge responsibilities on your shoulders, therefore you have to fulfill your duties with a sense of patriotism and liberate the country by lock, stock and barrel.” the president told hundreds of soldiers waiting for their commanders’ order to move to the frontline.

Meanwhile, hundreds of military vehicles, backed by battle tanks, rolled across the shrubby and wind-swept villages in Middle Shabelle region towards Al Shabab positions early on Thursday in a bid to surround militants who have immediately abandoned two small villages without putting any resistance.

The new offensive was launched nearly one month after over 500 people were killed in two separate attacks in Mogadishu, including the deadliest attack on October 14 which killed at least 400 people and wounded hundreds followed by a complex attack on a hotel in the Somali capital in which at least 40 people were killed.

The government has blamed Al Shabab for carrying out the initial and the deadliest attack. However, the group hasn’t so far commented on it, but immediately claimed the responsibility for the hotel attack.

Despite the group’s silence over the massive and deadliest truck bomb attack which killed hundreds of civilians, the latter had however marked a dramatic shift and change in public opinion towards the militant group, further eroding the group’s declining support base among Somalis.

(Additional reporting and editing by Timothy Moses in Nairobi, Kenya)

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