AFP/OGADISHU — Two strong explosions rocked the strategic Somali city of Baidoa hours after Ethiopian and pro-government forces wrested it from Al-Qaeda-backed insurgents, officials and witnesses said Thursday.
Shebab spokesman Sheikh Abdulaziz Abu Musab claimed responsibility for the blasts late Wednesday, saying they had inflicted “heavy losses” on pro-government forces.
He said the explosions “struck them when they entered positions our fighters had emptied”. He pledged to continue the conflict “until Islam becomes the only principle that rules the country.”
News of the blasts came as world powers met the fragile Somali goverment at a London conference Thursday to try to build on progress in the struggle against the Islamist militants, who have allied themselves to Al-Qaeda.
The Shebab claims of casualties could not be verified.
Ethiopian troops, who recently entered the country to back up a weak government army, have placed the southern Somali town under curfew after sweeping into Baidoa on Wednesday afternoon without resistance.
One resident, Warsame Adan, said a local factory had been targeted in one of the blasts after Ethiopian forces took it over.
“We don’t know if there were casualties, as we could not go out at night because there was a curfew.”
A man suspected of looting was shot dead by Somali forces, said Derow Nur, another resident.
“He had entered a former Al-Shebab base and was killed by Somali troops,” Nur said.
“The Ethiopian soldiers have set up bases around town, and traffic on the streets is gradually getting back to normal,” he said.
The black flag of the Shebab was hauled down off a flag pole in the centre of town on Thursday morning and Somali government officials said the town was calm.
They added that they would continue attacking the Shebab insurgents who had fled Baidoa hours before the Ethiopian-backed forces took control.
“The city is quiet this morning, and people are feeling free for the first time in more than three years,” said Abdifatah Mohamed Ibrahim, governor of the Bay region, which includes Baidoa.
“The enemy fled, and we will keep hunting them down to ensure stability returns to the region,” he added. “Security forces will intensify their operations to end insecurity.”
Baidoa was 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 Mogadishu.
Although the insurgents still control large parts of southern Somalia, they face a land and air offensive by Kenyan forces there.
However, Shebab fighters, who claimed their abandoning of Baidoa was a tactical retreat, said they had seized back areas between the town and the Ethiopian border lost in earlier battles.
“Mujahedeen fighters retook control of several areas the enemy seized on their way to Baidoa,” Musab said. The claims could not be verified.
The withdrawal follows the Shebab’s abandoning of most fixed positions in Mogadishu last August after failing to oust the transitional government in four years of fighting.