By Feisal Omar
BARAWE Somalia (Reuters) - About 1,000 African Union and Somali troops took control on Sunday of the al Shabaab militant stronghold of Barawe on the southern Somali coast after the al Qaeda-linked Islamist militants fled without resistance, a Somali official said.
The African Union and the Somali military launched a joint offensive in March to drive the al Qaeda-linked Islamists out of towns and areas they control, and stepped up their campaign in August after a surge in gun and bomb attacks in Mogadishu.
Shabaab members across Somalia have been arrested and smaller towns retaken, but the rebels still hold swathes of territory. Barawe is the biggest al Shabaab-held town that the offensive has targeted so far.
"We have completely taken Barawe town from al Shabaab. There are now no al Shabaab in the town, they escaped when they saw our forces approaching hours ago," Abdikadir Mohamed Sidii, the governor of the Lower Shabelle region, where Barawe is located, told Reuters.
On Aug. 30 the AU forces drove the militants out of the small southern town of Bulamareer.
"We have settled most of the troops on fringes of the town in order not to scare the residents. Only a few infantry are now inside. The mood is calm and there is neither attack nor resistance, residents are calm," Sidii said.
Al Shabaab officials were not immediately available for comment, although Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, their military operation spokesman, told Reuters earlier that militants on Saturday ambushed and burned two government vehicles near Barawe.
He declined comment on whether the Islamist militants had abandoned the town.
Barawe, about 180 km (110 miles) south of Mogadishu, had been fully controlled by the Islamist militia with almost no government presence since 2006.
Al Shabaab banned many aspects of modern life in the town, and applied its strict literal interpretation of Islamic sharia law, ordering executions, floggings and amputations for crimes such as theft.
The group ruled most of the southern region of Somalia from 2006 until 2011, when African troops marched into the capital. Western states, unnerved by the rising tide of Islamic militancy, have supported the AU peacekeeping force financially for years and say al Shabaab exploited Somalia's chaos to train its fighters.
Al Shabaab was destabilised badly after it lost the southern port of Kismayo to AU and Somali government soldiers in September 2012. The group had controlled the port since 2007, and charged taxes to ships that sailed or docked from its shores, raising revenues to expand its military campaign.
Since being pushed out of Kismayo, al Shabaab fighters have responded with a series of gun and grenade attacks against the government in Mogadishu.
Kenya, which has deployed troops with the African Union force to quash the Islamist rebels, also felt the impact of al Shabaab's reach in September last year when gunmen from the group launched an attack on the Westgate mall, leaving 67 dead.
The AU peacekeeping force is a 22,000-strong African Union troops that includes soldiers from Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Burundi and Sierra Leone.
(Additional reporting by Abdi Sheikh in Mogadishu; Writing by James Macharia; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)