AU forces gain ground against Somali militants

African Union troops defend the Yaaqshid district of Mogadishu, Somalia, July 28, 2011. Heavy fighting erupted Thursday in Somalia's capital as AU peacekeepers launched an offensive aimed at protecting famine relief efforts from attacks by al Qaeda-linked militants. AP Photo

MOGADISHU, Somalia — African Union and Somali forces traded barrages of fire at a new front line in Mogadishu on Friday, as the AU troops gained new territory against insurgents who may try to disrupt food distributions to famine victims.

A battlefield commander, Col. Paul Lokech, told The Associated Press on a trip near the front line that a Pakistani fighter was commanding the al-Shabab troops that AU forces were battling nearby, and that the militants were "active." Al-Shabab counts hundreds of foreign fighters among its ranks. Speaking of the Pakistani, Lockech said: "Don't worry, I'll get him."

Mortar fire and guns rang out nearby, as the militants put up more resistance than the AU forces had expected.

"They're worried about the ground they've lost," Lokech said.

The African Union and Somali troops have been fighting a concerted offensive against al-Shabab all year, and have gained a large swath of new territory in Mogadishu. But the fight took on a new importance in recent days as tens of thousands of famine refugees began squatting in squalid, hunger-filled refugee camps here.

The drought and the famine it's caused in Somalia have affected more than 11 million people, including 2.2 million Somalis who live in al-Shabab controlled territory in south-central Somalia where aid groups can't deliver food.

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A second U.N. plane landed in Mogadishu on Friday with more than 20 tons of nutritional supplements on board. A Kuwait Air Force transport plane also landed in the capital and offloaded sacks of food.

The World Food Program said with its second delivery Friday it has airlifted nearly 31 tons of ready-to-use food into Mogadishu. A WFP plane with 10 tons of peanut butter landed Wednesday in Mogadishu, the first of several planned airlifts in coming weeks.

The AU offensive that began Thursday has seen AU troops move up the east side of Mogadishu's largest market — Bakara. The troops now control three sides of the market — the west, south and east — and AU force spokesman Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda said Friday that the gains mean that tactically speaking the AU essentially controls the market.

Forces are now moving toward the city's large sports stadium, from which al-Shabab fires artillery, Ankunda said.

Putting a face on the young conscripts that fight for ragtag force that is al-Shabab, three militant fighters surrendered to AU forces and were being questioned on Friday. The three are teenagers: ages 14, 15 and 17.

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