File photo: A Somali soldier guards the front gate of the presidential palace following a suicide bomb attack in Mogadishu.

Mogadishu - Somali government forces backed by African Union troops have captured several towns from Islamist rebel group al-Shabaab, officials said on Thursday.

The towns captured are in the Lower Shabelle region, south of Mogadishu. The rebels were ousted from the capital in August 2011, but have since managed to stage bombings against civilian and government targets in the city, killing dozens.

“The terrorists controlled those villages in the last four years, but now our forces entered there without clashes,” said General Abdikarin Yusuf Aden.

He said some rebels fled to other strongholds and troops would continue to hunt them down.

Meanwhile, the government has lost a key ally. Officials confirmed Sheikh Mohamed Yusuf Hefow, the head of the powerful pro-government militia Ahlu-sunna Waljama, died of complications from diabetes this week.

Hefow's group has been actively taking part in the government's fight against al-Shabaab militants. - Sapa-dpa