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Somalia launches offensive against Islamic extremists in country's south

Military officials say the Somali army, backed by African Union forces, has launched a long-awaited operation against al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab fighters in southern Somalia.

Abdiqadir Mohamed Nor, the governor of Lower Shabelle region, where the offensive began, said Saturday that troops are advancing toward the militant-held town of Bulomarer, about 110 kilometers (70 miles) south of Mogadishu.

The offensive aims to oust the feared terrorist group from its last major strongholds, from where officials believe they orchestrate deadly attacks in and outside Somalia. Losing Bulomarer would leave the group's current key base of the coastal town of Barawe vulnerable to attacks.

Ruqiyo Hassan, a resident in Bulomarer, said by phone that residents are fleeing the area.

Al-Shabab's radio claimed their fighters have repelled the allied attempt to capture Bulomarer.