AMISOM and Somali government troops have vowed to flush out al-Shabab militants from their stronghold of Afgoye. AMISOM operations have left several militants dead and caused civilians to flee.
Hundreds of Somali troops backed by AU forces (AMISOM) and tanks launched attacks on Somali millitant group al-Shabab in Afgoye town, which is home to 400,000 internally displaced people (IDPs).
The attack left scores of militants dead, while many civilians fled.
AMISOM which already dominates Somalia's capita Mogadishu, is trying to push through the Afgoye corridor with the aim of liberating the IDPs who live in the world's largest displaced persons' camp. They are believed to be held hostage by the militants.
Afgoye corridor, which is just a few kilometers from Mogadishu, remains under the rule of the al Qaeda-linked group, a radicalized fighting force bent on ousting Somalia's Western-backed government and ruling the country according to a strict interpretation of Islamic law.
IDPs have little access to aid
"The main objective of the offensive is to rout out al-Shabab from Afgoye town, that is home to the IDPs' camp, in order for aid groups to continue their operations," AMISOM spokesperson Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda told DW. "We intend to take control of the situation in Afgoye within the next few days,” he added.
Al-Shabab has banned most international aid groups from working in territory under its control, despite the ongoing effects of last year's famine and threats of further severe hunger after failed crops this year.
Over 400,000 people, around one third of all the displaced people in Somalia, were living in the Afgoye corridor at the start of the year. They had fled either war or drought and have had little access to aid.
Civilians at risk
Observers say the latest fighting has put the lives of civilians in the camp at risk. However AMISOM spokesperson Ankunda said that the AMISOM troops were in Somalia to protect civilians from any aggression and improve the situation. He said AMISOM troops were taking care to avoid any attacks against militants that would endanger the lives of civilians.
Somali IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) wait in line to receive relief food.
During the fierce battle 10 km (6.2 miles) outside Afgoye town, the al-Shabab militants lost a number of key commanders and two vehicles were destroyed, dealing a major blow to their operations. Another vehicle containing a rebel commander was captured.
According to the AMISOM spokesperson, the AU troops suffered three casualties, one of whom was seriously wounded. He said this didn't deter them from their objective of liberating the 400,000 IDPs in Afgoye.
Life returning to normal in Mogadishu
Mogadishu is experiencing its longest period of peace in many years, since the AU contingent, made up mostly of Ugandan and Burundian soldiers, forced al-Shabab from the capital last year. Where once there were daily mortar and small-arms battles along frontlines running down the city's main streets, now it is rare to hear sustained gunfire.
Businesses are starting up again, markets are flourishing and schools and clinics are reopening.
AU troops alongside their Somali counterparts
AU and Somali troops have made significant gains in recent months against the al-Shabab militants, although the Islamists have switched to guerrilla tactics in Mogadishu, including a series of suicide and grenade attacks. In April a suicide bomber attacked the newly reopened Somali National Theatre, killing 10 people.
Many of the attackers are believed to come from the area around Afgoye, and AU commanders hope that Tuesday's offensive, which is likely to last several days, will force them to withdraw.
Somalia's weak, Western-backed transitional administration has until August 2012 to set up a permanent government, but the international community has expressed concern that it is failing to meet key deadlines.
Fighting erupted in Somalia in the late 1980s, escalating into a brutal civil war following a 1991 coup, with rival militias, warlords and Islamist fighters battling ever since for control of the Horn of Africa nation.
The mandate of the transitional government has already been extended several times and Western nations say it cannot be extended again.
Author: Isaac Mugabi (AFP, Reuters)
Editor: Susan Houlton