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15 killed as Somali troops begin new offensive

An offensive launched by Somali government troops has killed at least 15 people as the weak, U.N.-backed government attempts to win back control of areas held by militants, officials said Monday.

The government says the offensive, which began Sunday, has recorded some early successes, with militants fleeing from at least one town near the border with Kenya.

Somalia's Ministry of Information said 11 al-Shabab militants and one government soldier have been killed in the fighting. A witness said at least three civilians died. There was no way to independently verify the casualty figures.

Somalia hasn't had a fully functioning government since 1991. The U.S. and Italy are helping pay for training for government forces to take on militants.

Fighting was seen in the Bakol region, near the Ethiopian border, and the government said its forces had recaptured the Beled-Hawa district in the southwestern region of Somalia, bordering Kenya.

"The government soldiers entered our town on Sunday morning, forcing al-Shabab to flee," said Mohamed Osman, a resident. He said people in town burned al-Shabab's black flag and hoisted the Somali national flag above government buildings.

Somalia's Minister of Information, Abdirahman Omar Osman, said the operation is off to a good start.

"The victory in which our forces took over Beled-Hawo is for Somalis, the Somali flag and freedom. Forces will continue their struggle until they liberate the entire region from the brutal rule of al-Shabab," the minister said.

Al-Shabab, meanwhile, announced on Monday that residents in areas under its control can no longer use mobile money transfer services, a potentially crippling blow to businesses and residents who rely on the service to receive money from abroad.

A statement from al-Shabab's political office said the service was masterminded by Western interests and put the country's economy at risk. Residents use mobile banking services for money transfers, purchases, payment of bills and to add air time credit to their phone.

"The service was masterminded by Western companies, who want to bolster their economy by destroying ours. It also allows Western interference in the economy through mobile operators< foreign partners," the statement said.

The statement gave the country's major telecommunication companies three months to stop using the system.

Residents and the traders in the Somali capital who use the service because of the security it provides are likely to be severely affected by the ban.

"Instead of carrying my money in my pocket through dangerous streets and militia checkpoints I was using the service for shopping or large withdrawals when I reach my destination. It helped me a lot," said a resident in Mogadishu, Abdulahi Jibril.