African Union troops deployed in the Somali city of Baidoa Thursday, the first time the force has dispatched troops outside Mogadishu since it was set up five years ago.
The AU Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) sent 100 Burundian and Ugandan soldiers to the southern town of Baidoa, which Ethiopian troops captured from the Al Qaeda-allied Shebab militia in February.
“These 100 soldiers are the advance team for 2,500 AMISOM troops that will be deployed in phases. This team will be stationed alongside Ethiopian troops in Baidoa,” mission spokesman Paddy Ankunda said in a statement.
Baidoa, located 250 kilometres (155 miles) northwest of Mogadishu, was the seat of Somalia's transitional parliament until the hardline Shebab captured it three years ago.
The AU force now numbering some 10,000 soldiers from Burundi, Djibouti and Uganda first deployed to Mogadishu in 2007 where it has been battling the Shebab insurgents seeking to overthrow the fragile Western-backed government.
“Today is a major step forward for the African Union Mission and for everyone who wants to see peace in Somalia,” said Audace Nduwumunsi, the deputy force commander.
The Shebab are facing widening offensive by regional forces, with Kenyan troops battling them in the far south and Ethiopian troops in the southern and western Somalia regions.
In recent months, Ethiopian troops have seized four Shebab bastions.
In August, the Shebab abandoned fixed bases in the capital city after their four-year bloody battles failed to oust the government and the rebels have now reverted to guerrilla tactics.
The AU troops have advanced to Mogadishu districts formerly controlled by the Islamist rebels, but have faced attacks by remnant fighters who have also been carrying out deadly suicide and grenade attacks.
On Wednesday, Somalia's Olympic committee chief and the football federation president were among four people killed when a female suicide bomber blew herself up in Mogadishu's national theatre. - Sapa-AFP