MOGADISHU, Somalia – A new military offensive in Somalia has gained ground against al-Shabab insurgents despite a bomb explosion Monday that killed five pro-government troops at a base militants fled last week, officials said.
Maj. Paddy Ankunda, a spokesman for African Union troops in Somalia, said his forces began an operation last Thursday that has gained 500 yards (meters) of territory from insurgents.
"The territory that we continue to cover is giving us hope that, yes, we are making progress," he said.
Some of the territory gained included a former Sufi shrine that al-Shabab used as a military base. An explosion ripped through the shrine on Monday, killing five troops with a pro-government militia, said Abdi Muhummad, a commander.
Muhummad said he believes al-Shabab, the country's most dangerous insurgent group, buried the explosive before fleeing.
Three AU troops have died so far in the operation, in addition to Monday's five deaths. Al-Shabab displayed one of the AU bodies in Mogadishu last week.
Ankunda said the AU's ultimate target is Mogadishu's main market, Bakara, which al-Shabab currently controls. He said the operation also aims to get more roads open for public use.
He said the AU has seen al-Shabab forcing local business men to pay higher taxes, a possible indication that the militants' finances are under pressure. He also called on Somalia's government to solve their political problems so they don't derail the military gains. Somalia's president and parliament are arguing over elections scheduled for this summer.
Ankunda said that the AU force would kill an American fighting with al-Shabab if it could.
Omar Hammami, known as Abu Mansur al-Amriki, or "the American," held a news conference in the open last week, where he said that militants would seek revenge for the death of Osama bin Laden. Hammami, who sipped coconut milk from a straw as he spoke, gave the open-air news conference about 40 miles (60 kilometers) southwest of Mogadishu.
"We have the interest but unfortunately we don't have the capabilities to deliver such an attack," Ankunda said. "But honestly we do have the interest."
Associated Press reporter Jason Straziuso in Nairobi, Kenya contributed to this report.