Islamists retreat from Mogadishu

Islamist fighters withdrew overnight this weekend from almost all their bases in the famine-struck Somali capital Mogadishu, the most significant gain for the embattled UN-backed government in four years.

African Union force commanders toured newly abandoned positions, including a former sports stadium where the militia's tyre marks were fresh in the grass.

The militants have denied many aid agencies access to their territory and their presence in the capital has complicated famine relief efforts. The government has said that humanitarian agencies now were welcome to come and distribute aid, but many still insist on serving only pre-cooked rations at guarded kitchens.

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"It is of major significance, but the war is not over yet," said Somali defence minister Hussein Arab Esse as he stood amid the rubble of the stadium.

Tanks belonging to the African Union peacekeeping force surrounded the former militia base as gunfire crackled outside. Government soldiers draped in bandoliers of bullets lounged on smashed concrete pillars, staring as Somali and AU officials embraced.

Somalia has been a failed state for more than 20 years. Its lawless wastes are a haven for pirates and international terrorists and the conflict has caused two major famines. Hundreds of thousands starved to death in 1992 and the current emergency is believed to have cost tens of thousands of lives already. It is set to worsen, partly because the Islamists, who call themselves al-Shabaab, have banned many aid workers.

Al-Shabaab controlled around a third of the capital until Saturday morning. They carried out public amputations and executions, and forcibly recruited children as fighters.

They still hold most of southern Somalia, where tens of thousands are estimated to have starved. Desperate families are streaming into the capital from the country and setting up shelters made from twigs and tattered plastic bags.

Sodio Omar Hassan, who was seeking treatment for her child's malaria at a free hospital set up by AU peacekeepers, said people were incensed because al-Shabaab had refused to allow aid agencies to distribute food.

"People are angry now they are dying," she said, as other patients nodded around her. "They (al-Shabaab] don't bring us anything."

A year ago, even mentioning the word al-Shabaab in the heavily guarded hospital - one of the most secure places in Somalia - would make patients fall silent or hide their faces. But in recent interviews, men and women fleeing the famine gathered around to denounce the militia, which they said had tried to prevent families from seeking help, and stopped and sometimes killed the male family members.

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"They tried to stop us so we came the back way around," said Mumino Bury Adan, waving her hands to demonstrate how she weaved through the streets with her three children into government-held territory.

More than 12 million people in the Horn of Africa are in need of immediate food aid, including nearly half the Somali population. The UN says 640,000 children are acutely malnourished in Somalia, where the UN has declared five famine zones, including the camps for displaced people in Mogadishu.There have been two deadly shoot-outs in the past week after aid agencies tried to hand out sacks of food. Both incidents involved government forces, some of whom are poorly trained and disciplined.

It's still unclear why the militia retreated or what its next move will be. There are several possible reasons: the drought and the movement of population away from areas it controls; the diversion of foreign fighters and funding to the Arab Spring; or infighting among its leadership. It could simply be a change of tactics by a heavily outgunned force to a guerilla-style campaign of suicide bombings and hit-and-run attacks.

Al-Shabaab spokesman Ali Mohamed Rage told a local radio station that the forces had made a tactical withdrawal and would soon launch a counter attack.

"We shall fight the enemy wherever they are," he said.

The militia's withdrawal appeared orderly and co-ordinated, following a four-hour assault on several AU positions overnight. Witnesses spoke of seeing large numbers of al-Shabaab fighters moving in vehicles or on foot with their weapons.

Somali prime minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali estimated the militants now have vacated 90 per cent of the capital and said forces were checking the rest.

Mr Ali said the government wants to send security forces into the new areas vacated by al-Shabaab, describing the withdrawal as the "first phase of the new war."

In recent years, the Somali government has made little effort to provide services to its citizens despite receiving tens of millions of dollars in cash from foreign donors.

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Mr Ali said he would declare such donations in the future, making it easier to see how the government was spending the money.

Ugandan Lieutenant Colonel Paddy Ankunda, a spokesman for the 9,000-strong AU force, said the al-Shabaab has melted into the population and will become more difficult to deal with.

"We need more troops now than ever before. The area has become too big for the force to cover," Lt Col Ankunda said, looking out at the ruined city from behind a thick pane of bullet-proof glass.Wearing down al-Shabaab

A STRING of offensives this year - led by the African peacekeeping force with Somalia's army in tow - gradually tightened the noose around al-Shabaab's forces in Mogadishu.

Last month, the fighters lost control of the capital's Bakara market, nerve-centre of their Mogadishu operations and a crucial source of revenue. That left them with little more than a few mostly-empty neighbourhoods of little strategic interest.

Those losses exposed rifts in al-Shabaab's leadership between an international wing influenced by foreign fighters who favour guerrilla tactics like suicide bombings, and others who sought a conventional military strategy of holding territory.

The abandonment of Mogadishu suggests the international faction won the day.

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