African Union and Somali troops seized a town on the outskirts of Mogadishu on Friday from Islamist militants after three days of fighting, marking the biggest victory over al-Shabab since the pro-government forces took control of the capital last August.
A top United Nations official, meanwhile, announced that a presidential election in Somalia will be held on Aug. 20 _ with votes cast by lawmakers instead of by ordinary Somalis because of continued insecurity in the country.
Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda, the spokesman for African Union forces, said the troops moved into Afgoye on Friday and that most of the town was under the coalition's control.
More than 300,000 internally displaced Somalis live in and around Afgoye, located 30 kilometers (20 miles) north of Mogadishu. Thousands fled the area in overloaded vans and donkey carts the previous two days amid gunfire and explosions.
African Union "and Somali troops are here now, and al-Shabab abandoned the town," resident Aden Muse said by phone. "The fighting has stopped and people are indoors. We hope no more fighting will happen."
Soldiers have taken positions in the police and district headquarters, residents said.
"Tomorrow will be a new beginning for us," said another resident, Ubah Salad.
The U.N. representative for Somalia, Augustine Mahiga, said Friday at a news conference in neighboring Kenya that the pro-government forces needed to capture Afgoye for military and humanitarian reasons. He said al-Shabab manufactured its bombs in Afgoye and that the town "controls the exit and the entries to Mogadishu.
"And it has been the military concentration and headquarters of the Shabab. Hitting Afgoye would make a significant military breakthrough in the region of Mogadishu," the U.N. official said.
The Afgoye corridor between Mogadishu and Afgoye is home to the largest concentration of internally displaced people in the world, Mahiga added. He said aid agencies plan to begin helping them.
The U.N. recently approved a near doubling of the African Union force to more than 17,00 troops. Mahiga cautioned that the new troops are deploying far from Mogadishu and that, with pro-government forces being stretched, insurgents could infiltrate back into areas that have already been seized near the capital.
The next Somali presidential election will take place on Aug. 20, Mahiga said. Votes will be cast by members of a new 225-member parliament. Voting isn't being opened to the public because of a lack of security across the country.
In meetings this week in Ethiopia, Somali leaders worked toward adopting a new constitution and to end the transitional government's tenure. The U.N. mandate that authorizes Somalia's Transitional Federal Government expires on Aug. 20.
Somalia dissolved into anarchy in 1991 and has seen little government order since. The AU's defeat of al-Shabab in Mogadishu is the first time the capital has been secure in years. The U.N. and international community is pushing Somali leaders to make an orderly transition to the next phase of self-government with the election of a smaller parliament and a new vote for president.
Straziuso contributed from Nairobi, Kenya.