Military officials told Sabahi that allied forces took complete control of the strategic city and that al-Shabaab fighters fled before the forces arrived.
The capture of Balad — one of the last remaining key strongholds of the al-Shabaab movement — is a strong blow to the al-Qaeda-affiliated group, military officials and security analysts say.
General Ali Araye Osoble, spokesman for the Somali army, told Sabahi that the army is expanding the scope of its military operations in an attempt to regain control of the remaining cities and strongholds still under al-Shabaab rule.
He said Jowhar, the regional capital of Middle Shabelle, will fall in the coming days.
“We have managed to expel al-Shabaab fighters from Balad without any resistance, and we are now on the verge of wresting control of other cities in the region from elements of the al-Qaeda-linked group,” Osoble said. “Capturing Balad opens the door for seizing the city of Jowhar and other neighbouring areas.”
String of defeats for al-Shabaab
Over the past few months, al-Shabaab has lost several of its strategic strongholds in central and southern Somalia.
In February, allied forces liberated Baidoa from al-Shabaab. In March, Somali and African Union forces pushed al-Shabaab from its last strongholds in Mogadishu and allied forces liberated El Bur. In May, the movement lost the cities of Afgoye, Afmadow and other strategic areas.
Despite these consecutive losses, al-Shabaab claims they have been tactical retreats, not defeats, and that it is determined to continue fighting.
Since al-Shabaab lost control of the city of Afgoye last month, the joint forces have intensified their military campaign against the group.
The capture of Balad follows the allied forces’ takeover last week of El Maan port and the nearby Esaley Airstrip, both of which were under al-Shabaab control. Al-Shabaab had used both, which lie approximately 37 kilometres north of Mogadishu, to import arms and receive foreign fighters coming through the Gulf of Aden.
Major General Abdullahi Ali Anood, commander of the first battalion of the Somali army, said joint forces are now advancing towards the city of Jowhar to expel the remnants of al-Shabaab.
“The Somali armed forces are still advancing until the entire area is cleansed from elements of al-Shabaab, and we will soon be able to regain the remaining cities, such as Jowhar and Buloburde, that have fallen under the control of extremists,” he told Sabahi.
AMISOM spokesman Major Paddy Akunda said securing Balad from al-Shabaab makes Mogadishu safer.
“Al-Shabaab had used this city to launch attacks against Mogadishu, so securing Balad brings more safety to Mogadishu from terrorist attacks,” Akunda said. “Also, the joint forces are getting closer to the heart of the Middle Shabelle region.”
Akunda told Sabahi that the liberation of Balad allows allied forces to effectively secure a strategic entrance to Mogadishu.
“AMISOM and [Somali Transitional Federal Government] forces are completely prepared to take on larger responsibilities in order to maintain peace and bring back stability to all other parts of Somalia,” he said.
Somali prime minister visits city
Hours after the armed forces took control of Balad, Somali Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali congratulated the Somali army and AMISOM on their victory during a quick inspection visit to the liberated area.
In a speech delivered in front of a crowd that gathered to greet him, Ali urged allied forces to continue their military operations to liberate the remaining Somali cities from the grip of terrorists.
“We will continue our fight against al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda,” he said. “The Somali Transitional Federal Government’s plan is to get rid of terrorists, crush the terrorist groups that are linked with al-Qaeda and drive them out of the country before August of this year.”
Strategic importance of Balad
Balad, which lies 30 kilometres north of Mogadishu, is one of the most important strategic cities in the Middle Shabelle region.
Observers consider regaining control of this city a huge accomplishment for AMISOM since their deployment in Somalia in 2007.
“The fall of the strategic city of Balad in the hands of Somali national forces and AMISOM troops is a huge setback for al-Shabaab,” said Abdullah Omar, a Mogadishu-based security analyst. “Balad is the second key city outside the capital after Afgoye, which was seized last month.”
“Balad is considered a focal point and a main gateway that links the capital Mogadishu with the remaining central and northern areas of the country,” he said. “Moreover, it is an area that is rich in agricultural land and constitutes a breadbasket for residents of the central areas.”
Security analysts say al-Shabaab is now losing its on-the-ground administrative and military power as a result of the successful military operations executed against it.
“Al-Shabaab is now unable to defend its remaining positions due to a lack of ammunition and funding, not to mention low morale among members of the group,” said Abdisalam Gabow, a retired officer in the Somali army.
“The radicals have previously suffered overwhelming defeats and lost several strategic cities such as Beledweyne, Baidoa, Afmadow and Afgoye, and I do not think they are capable of defending their remaining strongholds such as Jowhar, Kismayo and Buale, because we are witnessing a noticeable decline in their fighting tactics as they retreat from every city that the Somali national army and AMISOM has approached,” Gabow told Sabahi.
He noted that the capture of Balad makes it easier for the government forces and AMISOM to control the main bridge over the Shabelle River and the main road that connects Mogadishu with the city of Jowhar.
“Al-Shabaab elements are unable to withstand the advance of the joint forces that are armed with heavy weapons in addition to tanks and military vehicles,” Gabow said.
Balad residents welcome ouster of al-Shabaab
Osman Mohamed Mohamud, commissioner of the city of Balad, said that the city’s residents welcomed the liberation of their area from al-Shabaab’s control.
“The residents are happy for the arrival of the national forces and AMISOM troops to their city and the expulsion of al-Shabaab,” Mohamud said.
Liberating Balad from al-Shabaab allows local farmers to resume their farming without being subjected to blackmail and extortion to finance their terrorist activities, he said.
Mohamud added that the locals are willing to help and work with the security forces to cleanse the region of al-Shabaab cells.
“The fact that local residents are co-operating with the security forces means that the security campaign to cleanse the area of al-Shabaab has higher chances of success,” he said.Admin@khaatumo.com