Somali soldiers patrol the streets of Baidoa
Truckloads of Ethiopian and Somali troops on Wednesday captured the strategic Somali city of Baidoa from Al-Qaeda allied Shebab insurgents, who vowed to avenge their biggest loss for several months.
The blow to the insurgency coincided with the UN Security Council boosting the strength of an African Union force in Mogadishu by more than 5,000 troops and came on the eve of conference in London aimed at reviving peace efforts, reports AFP.
"We have taken control of Baidoa without a single shot, it is a great day for the people who are now welcoming us warmly," said Muhidin Ali, a Somali government military commander in Baidoa.
Baidoa, 250 kilometres (155 miles) northwest of the capital Mogadishu, was the seat of Somalia's transitional parliament until the hardline Shebab captured it three years ago.
It had since been one of the Shebab's main bases and its capture leaves the group's fighters in central Somalia increasingly isolated, with the African Union mission (AMISOM) also chasing them out of the capital.
The insurgents still control large parts of southern Somalia, but a months-old Kenyan land and air offensive there is also making some progress.
Facing major offensives on three fronts, the Shebab reverted to guerrilla attacks including suicide bombings and remained defiant Wednesday.
"The takeover does not mean that the enemy will enjoy the city, there will be more bloodshed," said Sheikh Mohamed Ibrahim, a Shebab commander.
"The areas they took will only be the graveyards of the Christian invading forces and their apostate Somali militia."
Shebab fighters claimed they made a tactical retreat as "Ethiopian troops numbering thousands armed with heavy weapons and tanks" poured into the city, Ibrahim said.
The pullback follows the Shebab's abandoning of most fixed positions in Mogadishu last August after failing to oust the transitional government in four years of bloody battles.
Sporadic shooting was reported late Wednesday on the outskirts of the town, but residents said Baidoa was largely calm.
"We are at the centre now and moving towards every corners of the town, to ensure that we are in full control," Ali added.
Ethiopian troops, who moved into southern and western Somalia in November, began a major push towards Baidoa on Tuesday.
The Shebab are now "on the run," Ethiopian government spokesman Bereket Simon said. "We are committed to supporting the Somali people... for the demise of Al-Shebab and the liberation of Somalia."