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Associated Press
African Union forces pass through a thicket of cactus as they advance on Mogadishu as part of 'Operation Free Shabelle.'

MOGADISHU, Somalia — African Union and Somali troops seized a town on the outskirts of Mogadishu on Friday from Islamist militants after three days of fighting, marking the biggest victory over al-Shabab since the pro-government forces took control of the capital last August.

Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda, the spokesman for African Union forces, said the troops moved into Afgoye on Friday and that most of the town was under the coalition's control.

More than 300,000 internally displaced Somalis live in and around Afgoye, located 30 kilometers (20 miles) north of Mogadishu. Thousands fled the area in overloaded vans and donkey carts the previous two days amid gunfire and explosions.

African Union "and Somali troops are here now, and al-Shabab abandoned the town," resident Aden Muse said by phone. "The fighting has stopped and people are indoors. We hope no more fighting will happen."

Soldiers have taken positions in the police and district headquarters, residents said.

"Tomorrow will be a new beginning for us," said another resident, Ubah Salad.

The U.N. representative for Somalia, Augustine Mahiga, said Friday at a news conference in neighboring Kenya that the pro-government forces needed to capture Afgoye for military and humanitarian reasons. He said al-Shabab manufactured its bombs in Afgoye and that the town "controls the exit and the entries to Mogadishu.

"And it has been the military concentration and headquarters of the Shabab. Hitting Afgoye would make a significant military breakthrough in the region of Mogadishu," the U.N. official said.

The Afgoye corridor between Mogadishu and Afgoye is home to the largest concentration of internally displaced people in the world, Mahiga added. He said aid agencies plan to begin helping them.