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Islamist militant group al-Shabaab's increasing reliance on hit-and-run tactics in Gedo region are a clear sign the group is struggling to keep an on even keel under pressure from government forces, according to a former general.
Government forces backed by militia have seized control of the towns of Beled Hawo, Luq and El-Wak in recent months, and say they are planning assaults on other areas controlled by al-Shabaab.
The militants have turned increasingly to mining roads and lightning attacks on government bases.
“They don’t have the strength to fight for a long period, so they are mining ... this group is collapsed and can hardly fight,” said former General Ahmed Mohamud (Busul). “Al-shabaab are like a wounded animal who is almost dead, their only option is the hit-and-run structure, especially in the towns bordering Kenya and Ethiopia.”
Whether the general's analysis is correct – and there are some who believe al-Shabaab's strength is being underestimated – there is no doubting an increased emphasis on guerrilla-style tactics.
The latest landmine blast came near Luq on Monday, when a vehicle carrying goods triggered the device. Nobody was killed in this instance, but previous attacks have claimed lives, decreasing trade and pushing up prices.
On Friday night, al-Shabaab forces attacked a Transitional Federal Government base in Luq. The firefight lasted a mere ten minutes before al-Shabaab withdrew. Sheikh Da’ud Abu Yahya, a spokesman for al-Shabaab in Gedo, said the attack killed more than ten pro-government forces. The government rejected the figures, claiming instead to have killed seven al-Shabaab fighters.
Reading beyond the propaganda and extravagant claims that often characterize the conflict, the TFG truly seems to believe it has al-Shabaab on the run in Gedo, an important region that borders Kenyan and Ethiopia. There have been many unconfirmed reports of Ethiopia, whose two-year occupation sparked the insurgency, taking part in operations beyond the training it has happily admitted to. Kenyan forces have also been accused of crossing the border, and residents say they have seen military aircraft over battlefields - craft that are believed to belong to one of the neighbouring nations.
Witnesses said they saw TFG and Ahlu Sunna wal Jamaa (ASWJ) forces, backed by Ethiopian troops, advancing on al-Shabaab positions southwest of Beled Hawo on Sunday.
“They (the troops) are ready to move forward and stamp out al-Shabaab insurgents in Gedo,” Mohammed Abdi Kalil, the TFG's Gedo governor, told Somalia Report. “We have finalized the preparations and we will give the last order to all commanders in Busar, Luq and Arra-asse.”
The ultimate goal is to push on and take Garbaharey and Bardera, Gedo's southernmost district, where residents are fearful of what they see as an inevitable battle. Locals are hunkering down and hording food in case the TFG actually can live up to its big promises and bring the fight to the insurgents.
Yet even if the government does take control of Gedo, it is far from a decisive blow in the conflict, and al-Shabaab is pushing to make gains in other areas. The insurgents on Saturday showed their strength in Galgadud, taking advantage of split in ASWJ to briefly seize control of Dhusamareb from the Sufi-led moderate militia.
Former Somali army colonel Mohamoud Isse said this shows just how complex the conflict is.
“We see those in Gedo and Lower Juba are carrying out their role to push al-Shabaab back from the frontier regions, but look at Bakol, Hiran and Galgadud: we see the planned operation is not progressing,” he said.
There have also been rumours that the government is planning an assault on Kismayo - a key port town that brings in millions of dollars in revenue for al-Shabaab through taxation on shipping and allows the group to bring in supplies from the sea. Taking the heavily defended city would be a tall order, however, and an attack - rather than more big talk about the war being nearly won - would be a strong indication that the government truly is growing in strength and boldness.