Somalia's president claimed victory over Islamist insurgents Monday although it was far from clear that the militia has been defeated.
Forces nominally allied with the government have taken control of two border towns in recent days and on Monday residents said the insurgents had abandoned two more towns. African Union peacekeepers and government soldiers have also wrested three key positions from insurgent control after heavy fighting in the capital of Mogadishu.
Somali president Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed told reporters in the capital that the militant group al-Shabab were on the verge of defeat.
"Our victories are consecutive and our troops continue to defeat the enemy," said the president, dressed in military fatigue. He called for the "final elimination" of al-Shabab and said "we are confident that good changes will happen soon and that the enemy suffered to a great extent."
The government is almost entirely dependent on foreign donors to pay, equip and provide ammunition to its army, a ragtag force backed up by heavily armed AU peacekeepers. The recent gains along Somalia's borders have been made by Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jama, a fractious militia whose leaders have an uneasy alliance with Ahmed's government.
The president said that several top Somali commanders had been fired for poor performance in recent days. His office said they included the commander of the armed forces, the police commissioner, and the head of Somali intelligence.
An unknown number of government troops and insurgents and 53 peacekeepers have been killed since the pro-government offensive began Feb. 18. The operation aims to slice into the Islamist militants' grip on large swaths of Somalia's southern and central regions.
But the Islamists have often made tactical withdrawals before only to launch counter attacks later.
On Monday, residents said that the Islamists had abandoned Elwak and Garbaharey towns and Sheik Mohamed Isaq, a commander of the pro-government militia, said his forces entered the town of Luuq without a gunbattle.
Luuq is 55 miles (85 kilometers) east of Belet Hawo, a town that the pro-government militiamen overran on Saturday. It is a gateway to any push to capture other towns in Gedo region and beyond.
Pro-government fighters are also gathering near Belet Weyne, a town in the west near a strategic road linking Ethiopia and Somalia, said local commander Tawene Ahmed.
Such battleground successes are considered a morale booster for Somali government troops and their allied fighters. But al-Shabab says the success of the pro-government militia is because they are receiving support from neighboring Ethiopia, a mainly Christian country whose soldiers were stationed in mainly Muslim Somalia during an unpopular two year occupation that began in 2006.
"Ethiopia has again invaded Somalia. I am urging our mujahedeen army to be get ready for a bigger war against Ethiopian troops," said al-Shabab spokesman Sheik Ali Mohamud Rage.
Somalia has been mired in conflict since 1991, when warlords toppled the country's last central government and then turned on each other.