African Union and Somali forces captured new territory outside Mogadishu that has long been controlled by militant fighters, officials said Wednesday.
Tanks are tearing through the thorny scrubland to the northwest of Mogadishu, where tens of thousands of internal refugees live in informal camps in an area known as the Afgoye corridor. Troops on Wednesday were about 9 kilometers (6 miles) from Afgoye town following the launch of the operation on Tuesday.
African Union and Somali forces pushed al-Shabab militants out of Mogadishu last August. The forces are now trying to take control of areas outside of Mogadishu.
"Our main effort lies in fighting the terrorism," Ugandan Brig. Paul Lokeck told reporters visiting the front line. "The enemy has been fleeing toward Merca" he said, referring to a coastal town in Somalia's Lower Shabelle region.
Abdikarim Yusuf Dhagabadan, chief of Somali armed forces told reporters that his forces are giving civilians a chance to pack their belongings and flee. That advice directly conflicted with a statement from AMISOM, the African Union force in Mogadishu, which encouraged people in the corridor to remain in their homes.
AMISOM said its troops are avoiding entering camps around the main road to Afgoye.
The operation to move into Afgoye began on Tuesday with the goal of improving security in the corridor, an area northwest of Mogadishu with a large concentration of internally displaced people.
The African Union force said that a senior al-Shabab commander and his escorts were killed during Tuesday's fighting.
"Soon, once the security situation has stabilized, we hope to see that people will have the opportunity to return to their homes in Mogadishu," said Wafula Wamunyinyi, a top African Union official. "Humanitarian services provided by the international community will be available to them."
The top U.N. humanitarian official for Somalia, Mark Bowden, called on African Union and Somali troops to minimize the impact of the fighting on civilians. Bowden said the U.N. had no reports of "significant" movements of people from the Afgoye corridor.
But he said he was concerned prolonged fighting could lead to displacement, straining settlements where victims of last year's famine now live.