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African Union Begins Anti-Rebel Offensive North of Mogadishu

May 23 (Bloomberg) -- Somali and African Union troops advanced to the north of the capital, Mogadishu, to seize further ground from al-Qaeda-linked rebels in fighting that killed a senior commander of al-Shabaab, the peacekeeping mission said.

The offensive, known as Operation Free Shabelle, is taking place in the Afgoye corridor, an area housing the world’s largest population of internally displaced people, the African Union Mission for Somalia said in an e-mailed statement today.

Amisom, as the mission is known, have captured Al Fitr town, five kilometers (three miles) north of Mogadishu, it said. The dead rebel leader hasn’t been identified, it said.

Al-Shabaab militants have for the past five years waged an insurgency against the United Nations-backed transitional administration of Somalia’s President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed.

While the group withdrew most of its fighters from bases in Mogadishu in August following advances by African Union and government forces, the Islamic militant group still controls parts of central and southern Somalia. Somalia descended into chaos after the removal of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, leaving the country lawless and without a functioning economy.

The African Union is advising all residents in and around northwest Mogadishu to stay put, the statement said.

The UN is concerned the fighting will uproot more people from their homes, said Mark Bowden, humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, in an e-mail today.

“I remain concerned that an escalation of hostilities or a prolonged operation could lead to displacement,” Bowden said. The conflict could increase the strain on “settlements and host communities in Mogadishu or drive people away from the life-saving help they require,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Sarah McGregor in Nairobi at; Hamsa Omar in Mogadishu via Nairobi at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at

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