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Militant Islamist group al-Shabaab has abandoned Mogadishu, with fighters and top leaders streaming out overnight, leaving the capital in the hands of the government for essentially the first time since the insurgency began.
Residents in al-Shabaab-controlled areas say fighters crowded into small cars and left throughout the night after heavy fighting. Stadium Mogadishu, which was the largest base and staging ground for attacks, has been abandoned, as have the areas of Suqa-Holaha, Huriwa, Daynile, Warshada Basta, and parts of Karan. Even the insurgent stronghold of Bakara Market, which has been under pressure from the government for some weeks, has fallen, a government official said.
The African Union peacekeeping mission and government forces are now advancing into those areas, and witnesses say they saw soldiers loyal to the government in Stadium Mogadishu, which has long been a key target.
Insurgent leaders, fighters and preachers had already been leaving Mogadishu (as we reported on Thursday), but the scale and speed of the complete withdrawal has left many stunned.
Al-Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage confirmed his fighters left 11 districts in northern Mogadishu, for what he said were tactical reasons.
“The enemy of Allah, Burundi and Uganda, and those of helping the so-called Somali troops will no longer gain joy from seizing our areas,” he said. “Instead, they will see hit-and-run attacks.”
“Everyone can see that all the unbelievers and mercenaries are joining against Islam and the Somali people," he said on a pro-al-Shabaab radio station. "I assure all Muslims that American and French soldiers who were helping the apostate government took part in last night's battle ... we have changed our tactics and in the coming hours we will teach them unforgettable lessons."
Senior leaders Mukhtar Robow (Abu Mansoor) and Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys fled to Bakool region, locals said.
Government takes the credit
Government spokesman Abdirahman Omar Osman told Somalia Report early Saturday morning that the exodus was sparked by a battle the previous evening.
“Last night, al-Shabaab attacked us,” he said. "The government repelled the attack ... there is no al-Shabaab in Mogadishu this morning in Mogadishu, and the government security committee is in an emergency meeting to rapidly restore law and order.”
Patients in Daynile Hospital said that more than 40 al-Shabaab wounded were brought in during the night, before the retreat began. Others witnesses say they saw fighters abandon their arms and slip away.
"I saw three al-Shabaab fighters who threw their guns down and change into civilian dress," a Daynile resident known as Casho told Somalia Report.
“This is golden opportunity for Somalis to see for the first time in 20 years that their government is under full control of Mogadishu,” Osman said, “We already have control of Bakara market and have opened military courts."
Residents of Suqa-Holaha were out on the streets to watch the heavily armed fighters leaving.
"All al-Shabaab has disappeared, we are on the streets now, and the people are very glad ... because they were punishers, Abdulkadir Mohamed told Somalia Report.
However, mid-ranking militia leaders told Somalia Report that they would return to the bases in a few days after the tactical retreat.
Controlling the capital for the first time will be a major boost for a government that has long been seen as incapable of governing. Following Ethiopia's invasion to oust the Islamic Courts Union in late 2006, al-Shabaab launched its insurgency and the capital was quickly transformed into a battleground divided between the two sides. The government was penned in to a small area of control, protected by the AU peacekeepers. However, this year had seen real progress as government and AU forces chipped away at al-Shabaab positions.
Despite the spin about a tactical retreat, the exodus from Mogadishu will be seen as a sure sign that the dire predictions about the state of al-Shabaab’s finances, morale and fighting capability were in fact true.
Only last week the insurgents promised a massive offensive, saying they had sent up to 2,000 new troops to Mogadishu. They showed early signs of living up to that, carrying out attacks on the AU and government targets before the collapse. The group has been under pressure in Mogadishu and border regions since the start of the year, has been hit by internal divisions and has lost popularity due to its strict interpretation of Islamic law and refusal to allow western aid agencies into drought-hit regions.
Leaving Mogadishu will only further hit the group's finances, as Bakara and other markets have long been a major source of income through taxation on businesses.
However, al-Shabaab still controls much of the rest of southern Somalia, and if its tactics in the border regions are anything to go by, its fighters will launch regular suicide blasts and counter-attacks, and increase the use of IEDs in Mogadishu.