Islamic fighters have seized the town of Elasha, 11 miles southwest of the Somali capital, the latest gain in a rapid expansion of territory under Islamist control, residents and a spokesman said Thursday.
In the Islamic insurgency's advance toward the seaside capital, Mogadishu, militants have in the past few days captured several strategic towns previously held by militias loyal to the weak U.N.-backed government.
The Islamists already mount daily attacks on government troops in the capital, but analysts say it will be hard for them to take control of the city completely while Ethiopian troops allied to the government remain stationed there with attack helicopters and heavy weapons.
The insurgents aim to unite Somalia under the Islamic law of Shariah. In the port town of Merka, which the Islamists conquered Wednesday, a senior commander told residents that Shariah would be enforced starting immediately.
In Elasha, resident Said Sahra Sheik said more than 100 heavily armed fighters entered the town Wednesday night after the pro-government militia fled.
"The Islamic militia are patrolling in the streets," shopkeeper Fadumo Hussein Dahir said in a telephone interview from Elasha, where thousands of people are living after having fled the country's 2-year-old insurgency. "They have dismantled a roadblock, where pro-government militia used to take extortion money from passing vehicles. ... Now things are quiet."
A spokesman for the fighters, Abdirahin Isse Adow, said, "Our fighters have taken the control of the area to provide the security of the displaced people, who have been suffering from insecurity."
But 60-year-old Nure Guled Ali said she was worried that the Islamists might clash with the government soldiers and Ethiopian troops who frequently use the road running through Elasha.
The Islamists are not a homogenous group and they face internal divisions. Al-Shabab, which is spearheading the insurgency and holds the most territory, is on the U.S. list of terror groups.
The militia that took over Elasha is allied to a relatively more moderate faction, called the Council of Islamic Courts. Both groups aim to impose Shariah.
Senior al-Shabab commander Sheik Abukar told residents in Merka that Shariah would begin Thursday.
"We inform you that from today on, all areas under our control will be ruled by Islam. All business centers must be closed at prayer time. No tax will be taken, carrying illegal arms in the city or holding them in houses is banned, and we will change the behavior of the youth here," he said on local radio.
Somalia has not had a functioning government since warlords overthrew a socialist dictator in 1991. The impoverished country is riven between clan militias and its civil war is complicated by the involvement of archenemies Eritrea and Ethiopia.