Islamist militants exit Somali capital

Famine-plagued city now open to relief agencies

Somali government soldiers patrolled a main road near the deserted main Bakara market in the capital Mogadishu yesterday. Islamist fighters withdrew from the city but an Al Shabab spokesman says the group will launch a counterattack. Somali government soldiers patrolled a main road near the deserted main Bakara market in the capital Mogadishu yesterday. Islamist fighters withdrew from the city but an Al Shabab spokesman says the group will launch a counterattack. (Omar Faruk/ Reuters)
By Katharine Houreld
Associated Press / August 7, 2011

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

Commanders toured newly abandoned positions yesterday, including a former sports stadium where the militia’s tire 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 said humanitarian agencies now were welcome to come and distribute aid, but many still insist on serving only precooked rations at guarded kitchens.

“It is of major significance, but the war is not over yet,’’ said Somalia’s defense minister, Hussein Arab Esse, as he stood amid the rubble and graffitied walls of the stadium.

Tanks belonging to the African Union peacekeeping force surrounded the former base of the Islamist militia 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.

It is set to worsen, partly because the Islamists, who call themselves Al Shabab, have banned many aid workers.

Al Shabab controlled around a third of the capital until yesterday morning. The group carried out public amputations and executions, and forcibly recruited children as fighters. It still holds most of southern Somalia, where tens of thousands are estimated to have starved.

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 top leadership. It could simply be a change of tactics to a guerilla-style campaign of suicide bombings and hit-and-run attacks.

Al Shabab spokesman Ali Mohamed Rage told a local radio station that the forces had made a tactical withdrawal and would soon launch a counterattack. “We shall fight the enemy wherever they are,’’ he said.

Desperate families have been 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 Shabab had refused to allow aid agencies to distribute food.

“People are angry now they are dying,’’ she said, as other patients nodded. “They [Al Shabab] don’t bring us anything.’’

A year ago, even mentioning the word Al Shabab 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.

“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. “They don’t want to give us food and people do not agree. They just want us to stay there and die.’’

More than 12 million people in the Horn of Africa are in need of immediate food aid, including nearly half the Somali population. The United Nations 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.

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