BARAWE, Somalia - Somalia's army and African troops deployed forces on Monday inside a strategic port which they retook from Islamist rebels at the weekend, promising residents they would be protected.
The force of African Union peacekeepers and the Somali National Army said on Sunday they had driven out al Shabaab militants without a fight from Barawe, a stronghold used by rebels to ship in guns and generate cash from charcoal exports.
An official from the African Union force AMISOM told Reuters troops had entered the town at dawn on Monday. Previously, officials said they had avoided a hasty deployment in the town in case of ambushes or booby-traps left by the militants. "We assure you that AU and Somali forces will not harm you. We have come to help you," Abdirizak Khalif, deputy Somali military commander, told residents on a football pitch inside Barawe, which lies south of the capital Mogadishu.
African and Somali troops, with financial and training support from the West, launched an offensive this year to retake centres still held by al Shabaab group, a group aligned to al Qaeda which wants to impose its strict version of Islam.
Despite gains, diplomats said some recaptured centres turned into "ghost towns" because al Shabaab blocked supply routes, forcing residents to flee. AMISOM and Somali officials have said they wanted to prevent that happening again.
As well as a conduit for arms, Barawe has thrived on exporting charcoal, providing revenue to al Shabaab.
Charcoal exports have been banned by the UN Security Council to block cash reaching the militants, but that has not stopped the trade. Some African states said the ban should be lifted as it made keeping the peace among residents tougher.
Somali commander Khalif told residents the port activity would resume swiftly.
Abdikadir Moahmed Sidii, the governor of Lower Shabelle region told Reuters that the charcoal export ban would be enforced, even though traders had asked to continue the trade. "From now on, no charcoal will be exported," he said.
A Reuters witness in Barawe on Wednesday said small boats could be seen from the coast carrying what appeared to be sacks of charcoal out to larger vessels.
Western diplomats said retaking Barawe would be a blow to al Shabaab by cutting off a major source of revenue. It would add to challenges facing the group after a US missile strike killed the group's leader Ahmed Godane. A new one was appointed.
But the diplomats have said it would not stop the group, which is skilled at guerrilla-style gun and bomb attacks, even in the heart of Mogadishu, a city from which al Shabaab was ejected in 2011. The group controls swathes of countryside.