BARAWE Somalia (Reuters) - African Union and Somali troops on Sunday took control of Barawe, a port town used by al Shabaab to bring in arms and fighters from abroad, after the al Qaeda-linked militants fled without a fight, the AU and a Somali official said.
The African Union and the Somali military launched a joint offensive in March to drive the Islamist fighters out of towns and areas they control, and stepped up their campaign in August after a surge in gun and bomb attacks in Mogadishu.
Many al Shabaab members have been arrested and smaller towns retaken, but the rebels still hold swathes of territory.
"I wish to share some very good news with the people of Somalia. Al Shabaab terror capital Barawe is now under Somali government control," Lydia Wanyoto, the acting head of the African forces, said in a statement issued by the African Union.
Military officials said the AU and Somali soldiers would remain on the outskirts of Barawe for a few hours, and enter the town on Monday.
"There are no al Shabaab, but we felt it was not wise to rush in today, for there can be bombs planted in the town," a senior military officer who asked not to be named told Reuters.
Abdikadir Mohamed Sidii, the governor of the Lower Shabelle region in southern Somalia, where Barawe is located, said that al Shabaab had fled before the forces surrounded the town.
"We have settled most of the troops on the fringes of the town in order not to scare the residents. Only a few infantry are now inside. The mood is calm and there is neither attack nor resistance. Residents are calm," Sidii told Reuters.
Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, al Shabaab's military operations spokesman, declined to comment on whether the group had abandoned the town.
Hussein Nur, a university lecturer in governance and leadership in Mogadishu, said Barawe's loss was a major blow to al Shabaab.
"Economically, it was a port where they exported charcoal and imported what they needed. Militarily, it was a strategic place where Shabaab leaders and foreigners hid and trained bombers," he told Reuters.
"For the government, it means al Shabaab no longer has a base in the range of about 200 km away from Mogadishu. However, this is not the elimination of al Shabaab. They are still strong and control large swathes of Somalia."
Barawe, about 180 km (110 miles) south of Mogadishu, had been fully controlled by the Islamist militia since 2006.
Al Shabaab banned many aspects of modern life in the town and applied its strict interpretation of sharia, or Islamic law, ordering executions, amputations or floggings for various crimes.
Its sudden departure left residents far from at ease.
"Al Shabaab addressed us in the mosque ... they said they were leaving the town and warned us against helping the government," said a resident named Hussein Ibrahim.
"I am also preparing to flee. We are sure al Shabaab will attack the town."
Western states, unnerved by the rising tide of Islamic militancy, have given financial support to the AU peacekeeping force.
Al Shabaab was badly damaged by the loss of the southern port of Kismayo to AU forces in September 2012.
Kenya, which has deployed troops with the African Union force, felt al Shabaab's reach in September last year when gunmen from the group attacked the Westgate mall in the capital Nairobi, leaving 67 dead.
Additional reporting by Abdi Sheikh in Mogadishu; Writing by James Macharia; Editing by Jane Baird and Kevin Liffey