MOGADISHU, Somalia — Islamic insurgents captured a key southern town Sunday, witnesses said, as the fragile government claimed the defection of a key militia leader as a major victory.
The government has been struggling against a major push in the last week by insurgents, apparently aimed at taking over what little of the Somali capital the government still controls.
The government denied that militants had captured the agricultural crossroads of Jowhar, but residents reported a street battle that ended with government allies fleeing to the outskirts of the town.
Sheik Yusuf Indahaadde, the latest Islamic leader reported to have switched sides in Mogadishu, promised his men would now take up arms for the government, according to Information Minister Farhan Ali Mahmud, a key ally.
Pro-government militias control much of central Somalia, but the government directly controls only a few blocks of Mogadishu, the capital, and a border town. Al-Shabab, an Islamic insurgent group that the U.S. State Department considers a terrorist organization with links to al-Qaida, controls much of southern Somalia.
Jowhar, 55 miles from Mogadishu, is a key travel route from southern to central Somalia. Its takeover by al-Shabab would be a significant victory.