MOGADISHU, Somalia (CNN) -- The Somali National Army, along with African Union troops, on Sunday launched a long-awaited offensive against al Qaeda-linked Somali rebels and captured the town of Jowhar, the AU and residents said.
The joint forces faced little resistance, the African Union Mission for Somalia said in a press release, adding that Jowhar had been a major base for Al-Shabaab in southern Somalia.
Abdi Isac, a local resident, said by phone from Jowhar that the allied troops peacefully entered the city after the Islamist militants pulled out without a fight or firing a single shot.
Government forces and AU tanks were visible encircling the town and moving cautiously into the police stations and administrative offices in Jowhar to secure the city, residents said.
The Al-Shabaab fighters headed toward the nearby rural area that is their stronghold, reports said.
Jowhar, 90 kilometers (56 miles) north of the capital, Mogadishu, lies at a strategic crossroads of routes to the north and south of the country.
The capture of the town "will go a long way towards improving security for the civilian population" in the region, the AU commander said, according to the press release.
The rebels continue to hold small rural areas in central and southern Somalia but are being squeezed out of some parts by Kenyan and Ethiopian troops, which launched incursions inside Somalia in October 2011 in support of the beleaguered Western-backed Somali government.