Somali commandos of the Danab “Lightning” Brigade, backed by Ugandan African Union (AU) forces, have taken the strategic town of Kuntuwaarey in the Lower Shabelle region from the al-Shabaab terrorist group, freeing at least 33 children in the process, officials said.

The town of Kuntuwaarey, in the southwest of Somalia, located about 200 kilometers from the capital, Mogadishu, has been a strategic stronghold for the terror group for many years.

The “Somali National Army, backed by units from the African Union peacekeepers, has taken control of this strategic town from the militants,” Isaq Ali Subag, the Minister of Internal Security for the region, said. He added that al-Shabab had been using the town as a base to launch attacks on cities and towns in the region.

The Somali government released photos of the Somali commandos and African Union troops as they entered the area.

“The militants have used the city as a military base from which to organize attacks they carry out in other parts of the region, and to run courts in which they impose taxes and other unfair sentences to innocent people,” Subag said.

After securing the town, the troops carried out house-to-house searches and freed 33 children from the militants. The children had been taken by force from their families and sent to the camp where they were to be indoctrinated and then turned into child soldiers. The military forces were also searching for arms and explosives the jihadists left behind.

“When the army took over the town, they went to the camp where the children were staying on the outskirts of the town,” a government statement read. 

“The 33 rescued children were held in an al-Shabab-run center in the town. They told us they were forcibly taken from their parents,” Colonel Isma’il Abdi Malin said in a statement to a government media outlet. “The militants were indoctrinating the children to draft them into their ranks.”

The Somali troops killed at least four senior al-Shabab members, including the group’s financial coordinator and operations commander, government officials said.

“The militants’ financial coordinator in the region, Mohamud Ahmed Gaboobe, and its operations commander in the town were among those killed during the military operation,” the report said.

The Danab “Lightning” Brigade was constituted in 2013. Its basic combat training is conducted by a civilian corporation (Bancroft Global Development). Then, U.S. Special Operations units train them up for direct action missions. AFRICOM has not identified which U.S. SOF units are working directly with Danab.

There are between 1,000-1,500 troops in the Danab Brigade. The plan is to eventually beef the brigade up to five battalions of at least 500 men each, for a total of about 3,000. But the Somalis are having issues finding enough quality recruits to expand the force. The unit is headquartered at Baledogle Airfield, a former Soviet airbase in southern Somalia that houses a significant U.S. air and ground presence.

In related news, al-Shabaab executed Abdifatah Baari one of its own commanders and one of the most wanted men in Somalia. The execution comes as reports of strife within the organization increases as al-Shabaab continues to lose ground and is pushed farther into more sparsely populated areas. Baari had been, reportedly, jailed for months by al-Shabaab for unspecified charges. 

Baari, who had been with al-Shabaab for the past eight years had been appointed as the top military commander in the Mogadishu and Lower Shabelle areas. He was notorious for killing soldiers and civilians with impunity. Prior to joining the terrorist group, he ran a militia that manned checkpoints where he routinely extorted or murdered people. Several other notable al-Shabaab officials have been kicked out of the organization, including the head of intelligence, Ahmed Diriye, and the financial controller, Mahad Karate.