Islamist militants seized control of the southern Somali port of Merka after national army and African Union troops withdrew, a witness and a regional official said.
Heavily armed al-Shabaab fighters moved into Merka on Friday, occupying bases and government buildings, Mohamed Mursal, a witness, said by phone from the town in Somalia’s Lower Shabelle region. That’s about 60 miles (97 kilometers) from the capital, Mogadishu.
Lower Shabelle Governor Ibrahim Adan Ali said by phone that Merka had fallen to the al-Qaeda-linked group and said he didn’t have any more information. The spokesman for the African Union mission in the country, Paul Njuguna, didn’t answer calls and a text message seeking comment.
Al-Shabaab has waged an insurgency in the Horn of Africa nation since 2006 to impose its version of Islamic law. While it’s lost territory since being driven out of Mogadishu in 2011, the group continues to stage deadly gun and bomb attacks both at home and around the region.
Witnesses in southern Somalia last week said Kenyan troops had withdrawn from two towns. The reported pull-outs came in the aftermath of a Jan. 15 attack on barracks used by Kenyan soldiers in the town of el-Adde. While al-Shabaab claimed it killed 100 troops in that raid, Kenya’s military has only confirmed there were casualties without giving a death toll.