The Shabab militant Islamic group retreated early Saturday from war-battered Mogadishu, leaving residents to awaken to hushed streets as the government claimed victory against extremist forces that had tormented the Somali capital for years.
It was not clear whether the move signaled a lasting withdrawal by the Al Qaeda-linked group or was a tactical shift in preparation for a counterattack. The rebels have been pounded in recent months by 9,000 government-backed African Union soldiers and U.S. drone strikes that have targeted Shabab commanders.
Rebel units began trundling out of the city in pickup trucks before dawn after intense firefights with government forces late Friday night. The militants headed toward the their strongholds across southern Somalia, a desolate terrain awash with hundreds of thousands of starving families enduring the Horn of Africa’s worst drought in decades.
The country “welcomes the success by the Somali government forces backed by [African Union peacekeepers] who defeated the enemy, the Shabab,” President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed told reporters at his residence. He added: “It is time to harvest the fruits of peace. I call on the Somali people to help and to support their soldiers and point out any Shabab member hiding in homes.”
Ali Mohamud Rage, a Shabab spokesman, told a Somali radio station: “We have abandoned Mogadishu but we remain in other towns. We aren’t leaving you. We have changed our tactics. Every one of you will feel the change in every corner and every street in Mogadishu. We will defend you and continue the fighting.”
The Shabab and its fierce interpretation of Islamic law, which espouses stoning adulterers and carrying out public beheadings, were despised in Mogadishu, where residents lived trapped by gunfire and artillery barrages between the rebels and government-back troops. The capital devolved into a fearful, bloodstained version of itself as bullet-pocked buildings crumbled along the Indian Ocean.
The U.S. has been concerned that Shabab, which has connections to Al Qaeda extremists in Yemen, would further disrupt the volatile intersection of Africa and the Middle East. In 2010, Shabab carried out twin bombings in Uganda that killed 76 people; the attacks were retribution for Ugandan soldiers taking part in the African Union’s peacekeeping mission in Somalia.
The rebels have been particularly brutal to their fellow Somalis. They have deterred humanitarian organizations from reaching drought regions under their control. Shabab also has been criticized for preventing hundreds of thousands of Somalis from fleeing their territory to international aid camps. Their withdrawal from Mogadishu is likely to speed up delivery of food and supplies to thousands of villagers who have staggered into the capital.
The Islamic militants began seeping across Mogadishu in 2007, a year after Ethiopian troops invaded the country and a transitional government tried to form a semblance of order among warring clans and religious extremists. The government has received military training and millions of dollars in Western assistance but is rife with corruption, tribal politics and an often uncommitted, underpaid army.
Surges by African Union forces, however, have weakened the Shabab’s grip on the capital. The rebels also have been divided on tactics. Shortly before midnight Friday, they launched attacks on government bases and troop positions. Gunshots and explosions rang across the city for hours as government-backed forces advanced on rebel strongholds.
“The government repelled the attacks and we have cleared Mogadishu this morning,” government spokesman Abdirahman Omar Osman told The Times.
Somalis watched as militants streamed out of the city.
“I saw a convoy of about a dozen pickup trucks full of fighters coming from Mogadishu,” Osman Farole, a resident of Afgooye, about 20 miles outside the capital, told The Times. “Among the convoy were two black-tinted 4x4 vehicles that are supposed to carry their leaders.”
Ali Mohamed Majibaste said the rebels vanished from his Senia neighborhood in north Mogadishu. “You can’t see a single Shabab fighter around our village,” he said. “What is left is only their entrenchments, holes, sandbags and bullet casings.”
He paused and added, “But people are worried that more heavy fighting may come to this village.”
Times staff writer Fleishman reported from Cairo and special correspondent Mohammed from Mogadishu.