Somali government forces have gained control of a key southern town, making progress toward a major stronghold of al-Shabab fighters.
Government troops, backed by the African Union mission in Somalia (AMISOM), finally gained control of Qoryooley on Saturday, after a heavy battle outside the town in lower Shabele region.
Hundreds of local residents fled the area to avoid being caught in the crossfire.
The troops are now closing in on the al-Shabab coastal bastion of Barawe.
The town is located between the Somali capital, Mogadishu, and the southern port city of Kismayo, which is controlled by Kenyan AMISOM troops.
The joint Somali and AU forces have launched an extensive offensive against the al-Shabab fighters throughout the country in the past month.
UN envoy to Somalia Nicholas Kay has called the offensive “the most significant and geographically extensive military advance” since AU troops started operations in 2007.
Al-Shabab fighters were pushed out of Mogadishu and other major towns in Somalia by AMISOM – which is made up of troops from Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti, Sierra Leone and Kenya.
But the group still controls large swathes of land in southern Somalia and continues to target the foreign troops in the country.
In February, the United Nations refugee agency voiced concern over the rising number of Somalis displaced as a result of violent clashes between AU-backed government forces and al-Shabab fighters.
Somalia did not have an effective central government from 1991 until August 2012. In September 2012, Somali lawmakers elected Hassan Sheikh Mohamud as the new president of Somalia.