By Mohamed Ahmed and Abdi Sheikh
MOGADISU (Reuters) - African Union peacekeepers and Somali government forces advanced on Mogadishu's Bakara market, a rebel stronghold, amid heavy gunbattles, a spokesman for the peacekeeping force said Sunday.
Regaining control of the heavily populated market is essential to flushing the al Qaeda-affiliated militants out of Mogadishu but analysts warn the fight is likely to be hard and messy.
Major Paddy Ankunda said several strategically important streets had been seized from the al Shabaab insurgents, including the Wadnaha road which is seen as a critical supply route into the market.
AMISOM has said it will not battle its way through Bakara but rather try to squeeze the insurgents out.
"We crossed the Wadnaha road, al Shabaab's main route in and we are at the edge of Bakara now," Ankunda told Reuters. "We do not want to enter Bakara, we want to lay siege to it."
Considered by Washington as al Qaeda's proxy in the region, al Shabaab is fighting to topple the beleaguered U.N.-backed government it says is a puppet of the West and impose a strict version of sharia law on the country.
While al Shabaab appears to be on the back foot, AMISOM has warned a bitter power struggle among the country's political leaders risks unravelling the military gains.
Interior Minister Abdi Shakur Sheikh Hassan assured traders their properties would be protected as far as possible.
"We urge them (traders) to work with the government. Do not allow al Shabaab to hire or fire from your buildings," Hassan told a news conference in the capital.
Residents reported AU tanks had been deployed to the southern edge of the market where peacekeepers could be seen digging defences. Military helicopters have also seen flying low over rebel bases in the past few days.
"They (al Shabaab) are not happy and their (military) might has not been visible since the helicopters were seen flying over their bases this week," said mother-of-six Halima in Mogadishu's northern district of Huriwa.
(Editing by Richard Lough)