African peacekeepers in Somalia operating with government forces have recaptured several strategic towns in the southwest from the Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab militia, officials said Sunday.
The African Union's AMISOM force announced it had launched a widescale offensive on Thursday against the Islamist fighters in areas near the Ethiopian border.
The operation comes in the wake of a surge of attacks in the Somali capital Mogadishu, where the Shebab is fighting to oust the internationally-backed government.
"AMISOM and the Somali troops kicked Al-Shebab out of several key towns including Wajid and (regional capital) Hudur," regional government official Abdulahi Yarisow told AFP.
"Our military advancement will continue until we eliminate the enemy from the rest of the country."
AMISOM said in a statement it had also secured the towns of Ted, Rabdhure and Buudhubow and driven out Shebab militiamen, but witnesses reported fierce fighting on Sunday in Buudhubow.
"The SNA (Somali National Army) and AMISOM joint operations signal the beginning of the renewed efforts by the Somali government forces working more closely with AMISOM forces to dislodge Al-Shebab from many of its strongholds across the country," it added.
Hudur had been taken from the Islamists in March 2012 by Ethiopian troops who later withdrew and it then fell back into Shebab hands.
Ethiopia intervened in Somalia between 2006 and 2009 and again sent in troops in November 2011 to battle Islamist fighters in border regions, providing crucial aid to the peacekeeping force.
In January of this year, Ethiopian troops joined AMISOM, sending a contingent of 4,400 men and boosting the peacekeeping force to some 22,000.
Local residents contacted by AFP confirmed that Wajid and Hudur had been retaken by AMISOM.
"The town (Wajid) is empty, Al-Shebab ordered people to leave the town before the Ethiopian and Somali troops (arrived) but the situation is quite calm now," said Abdi Hassan, who lives in a neighbouring village.