- Islamic militants have taken over Merka, a port city located about 90 kilometres south-west of Somali's capital Mogadishu today.
According to residents, al Shabaab fighters rode into Merka port in the morning after government-aligned militia left overnight in anticipation of invasion.
They said fighters came into Merka on pick-up trucks mounted with machineguns. "We saw them coming in. They went directly to the police station. Now they are passing along main street. There were no skirmishes," one resident said.
Merka is now closest town to Mogadishu held by al Shabaab and is most significant territorial gain by insurgents since they took Kismayo port further south earlier this year.
Al-Shabab has rejected a recent UN peace agreement between Somali government and moderate Islamists.
In early stages of their two-year insurgency, Islamists tended to take towns briefly before being ousted in 2006. But since this year, they have been taking and holding territory, and now control most of south Somalia. They have also been staging regular attacks in Mogadishu.
Islamic hardliners who occupied larger part of the country in 2006, were ousted by Somalia troops backed by Ethiopia.
Ethiopia was due to start withdrawing its soldiers from Mogadishu later this month under peace plan, but al Shabaab's presence so close may force a re-think, analysts have said.
"They've timed this perfectly to unsettle the whole peace process just when it was gaining a bit of momentum," a Nairobi-based Somalia expert said.
Somalia has been wracked by conflict since the ousting of the regime under the late dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.
UN has said that with violence and backtrotting of a peace deal, more than three million people, almost half Somalia's population are in need of food or medical aid.
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