Ethiopian and Somali troops have captured the strategic Somali city of Baidoa from al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabab fighters, who vowed to avenge the loss.
Baidoa, 250km northeast of the capital Mogadishu, is one of the main bases of the anti-government group, and Wednesday's capture deals a major blow to the fighters, who control large parts of southern and central Somalia.
"We have taken control of Baidoa without a single shot, it is a great day for the people who are now welcoming us warmly," said Muhidin Ali, a Somali government military commander in Baidoa.
"We are at the centre now and moving towards every corners of the town, to ensure that we are in full control," Ali added. "The enemy fled the city before our army has reached the town empty."
Sporadic shooting was reported on the outskirts of the town, but residents said the city was largely calm.
"The takeover does not mean that the enemy will enjoy the city, there will be more bloodshed," said Sheikh Mohamed Ibrahim, a Shabab commander.
"The areas they took will only be the graveyards of the Christian invading forces and their apostate Somali militia."
Ethiopian troops, who moved into southern and western Somalia in November, began a major push on Tuesday towards Baidoa, which hosted the transitional parliament before Shabab rebels seized the town in 2009.
"There was no fighting, the Somali troops and the Ethiopian forces entered the town, setting up their base at the police station and the main crossroads in town," said Abdulahi Hassan, a resident.
"People are out in the streets watching the soldiers who are gradually moving into the different parts of the city."
The rebels are already struggling financially and face increasing pressure from regional armies and pro-government forces. The rebels still control the southern port town of Kismayo, a major source of income.
Witnesses had said earlier that Shabab fighters and their families were seen fleeing Baidoa towards rebel-held Afgoye.
"Many people, most of them al-Shabab families and supporters, are fleeing Baidoa," said Hussein Ali, a resident. "They are heading towards the Afgoye.
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|Timothy V. Gatto|