UPDATE 1-Ethiopian forces capture key Somali rebel stronghold

Wed Feb 22, 2012 7:30pm GMT

Ethiopia sent troops across the border into Somalia in November to open up a third front against the militants already suffering financial constraints and internal divisions.

Its ground-forces launched a push south towards Baidoa through Bay and neighbouring Bakool regions on Tuesday and faced minimal resistance, said officials.

On Wednesday morning, witnesses said al Shabaab had also surrendered the town of Berdale about 60 km from Baidoa, a day after losing control of the town of Yurkud about 50 km away.

After a day hunkered down in fear of a bloody battle for Baidoa, residents remained hesitant to wander far.

"Our movement is very limited. The government and Ethiopian troops are jointly patrolling every corner of the town," resident Moalim Ali Aden told Reuters by telephone from Baidoa.

It was not immediately clear how long Ethiopia would keep its forces deep inside Somalia.

Ethiopia's more than two-year military presence inside Somalia between late 2006 and early 2009, when it routed another Islamist administration from power, provoked massive resentment and galvanised support for the militant Islamists.

Increasing the cap on AMISOM's numbers to 17,731 paves the way for Kenya's troops in southern Somalia to "re-hat" as peacekeepers and for the peacekeeping force to move decisively beyond the confines of Mogadishu.

Diplomats, however, say Ethiopia's troops will not integrate into AMISOM and will eventually withdraw.

"Al Shabaab will have no place in Somalia. They are already weakened and we shall finish them," AMISOM force spokesman Paddy Ankunda told Reuters. (Additional reporting by Feisal Omar; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Roger Atwood)

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