Somalia’s Islamist al Shabaab rebels were driven out out of key positions in the war-torn and famine-struck capital of Somalia on Saturday, with the country’s president proclaiming the city “fully liberated.”
“Mogadishu has been fully liberated from the islamic enemy, and the rest of the country will soon be liberated too,” Sharif Sheikh Ahmed told reporters.
The al-Qaeda affiliated al Shabaab insurgents abandoned several strategic positions overnight that were then taken over by government troops.
“We are very happy — the fruits of bloodshed and the wars that we fought against the rebels are finally attained,” Ahmed said.
The significant development occurred after clashes late on Friday and early Saturday between the militia and government forces and their African Union allies.
Ahlu Sunna wal-Jamea, a malicia group, and the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) were instrumental in the rout.
Key positions lost by the rebels include the rebels’ main base in the city, Mogadishu Stadium, and Warshadda Baastada (a former factory), a strategic location used by the insurgents to control the capital’s northern districts.
Most of the confrontation took place at Bondhere, Howl-wadaag and Wardhigley districts. Pro-government forces moved in from different directions forcing the al Shabaab fighters to dramatically abandon Mogadishu in hundreds of vehicles.
“The clashes were very intense and all sorts of light and heavy weapons were employed,” a resident in Yakshid, who asked not to be named, said.
“Before dawn, we saw many vehicles with all kinds of belongings heading towards the northern outskirts of Mogadishu,” added the eyewitness.
Some of the last positions vacated included Tawfik and Huriwa districts and the strategic Suuqa Xoolaha, the main trading centre in northern Mogadishu.
Most of the retreating fighters headed towards Lower Shabelle and Middle Shabelle regions, respectively south and north of Mogadishu.
The al-Shabaab fighters had provoked the latest fighting by waging widespread attacks on pro-government forces.
Spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamoud Raghe alias Sheikh Ali Dhere, told al-Shabaab fighters via Al-Andalus, a radio station run by the group, that they were changing war tactics.
Wage more attacks
“We are going to operate from the upcountry regions, vowing to come back to wage more attacks on the Transitional Federal Government and on AMISOM,” he said.
African Union-backed government troops have been battling al Shabaab rebels in Mogadishu in an offensive to secure aid delivery routes for victims of the drought threatening some 12 million people in Somalia and other Horn of Africa countries.
“We have two enemies to fight — one of them is the al Shabaab, while the other is those who try to rob the people,” president Ahmed said.
“We will not tolerate looting, and anyone found committing such a crime will be brought to justice.”
Lawless Somalia is awash with rival militia factions. On Friday, food aid being handed out to famine victims in Mogadishu was looted by islamic gunmen, who killed five people.
The al Shabaab fighters are waging a bloody campaign to overthrow the country’s Western-backed transitional government, and control large areas of the south and centre of the country.
Until Saturday morning, government and AU troops controlled just over half of Mogadishu, including the airport and port, while the al Shabaab controlled the city’s north-east.
“The enemy is defeated, they were driven out of Mogadishu — and we will fight them to eliminate them from the rest of the country,” Somalia’s prime minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali said.
Since February, Amisom with its 9,000 Ugandan and Burundian soldiers has clawed back key positions from the insurgents.
Major Paddy Ankunda, a spokesman for the AU’s Amisom force in Somalia, said they were reacting cautiously to the al Shabaab’s move.
The al Shabaab pullout will likely be a major economic blow to the rebels, whose control of Mogadishu’s main Bakara and Suuqbaad markets have in the past netted the group up to $60 million annually through taxes, according to a UN report released last month.
However, the pullout is unlikely to bring an end to conflict in Somalia, with pro-al Shabaab websites stressing the fight would continue.
“The move will enable the al Shabaab to gain the upper hand over the African invaders,” one terrorist website read, referring to the Amisom force.
The UN has estimated that nearly half of Somalia’s estimated 10 million people require humanitarian assistance — the majority in areas controlled by the al Shabaab, which expelled key foreign aid groups two years ago.
The UN has officially declared famine for the first time this century, including Mogadishu and in four southern Somali regions, warning that famine could still spread further.
The UN’s Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit describes Somalia as “the most severe humanitarian crisis in the world today and Africa’s worst food security crisis since Somalia’s 1991-92 famine”.