Somali insurgents linked to al-Qaeda withdrew from the capital, Mogadishu, where about 100,000 people have arrived in the past two months seeking food, water and shelter amid a famine in parts of the war-torn country.
“Mogadishu is under the control of government troops,” Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali told reporters today in the city. “The government will continue to eradicate al-Shabaab until we have cleared out all Somali regions.”
Al-Shabaab militants pulled out of the city earlier today following “heavy” clashes with Somali government forces, government spokesman Abdirahman Omar Osman said in a phone interview. The rebel group confirmed the withdrawal, though it vowed to retake areas held by the Western-backed administration.
President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed’s government, backed by African Union peacekeepers, has been fighting to regain control of Mogadishu from al-Shabaab for the past four years. The insurgent group, accused by the U.S. of having links to al-Qaeda, controls most of southern and central parts of Somalia.
The United Nations last month declared a famine in five areas of southern Somalia amid a drought in the Horn of Africa that the organization says is the worst in 60 years. Al-Shabaab has banned humanitarian agencies including the World Food Programme from working in the country, forcing residents affected by the drought to seek shelter in Mogadishu and in refugee camps in neighboring countries.
Last week, African Union peacekeepers captured three “strategic” locations in Mogadishu to protect aid workers providing assistance to people in the country. The raids came before the start on Aug. 1 of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month during which al-Shabaab has started offensives every year since 2007.
Sheikh Sharif congratulated his forces for bravery for “facing and eliminating the peace haters” and said the government would no longer tolerate those who injure civilians or damage their property.
“This is the time to harvest the long-awaited fruits of peace,” he told reporters in the capital.
Al-Shabaab’s withdrawal is a “tactical” move and the militia plans to regain control of other areas held by Somalia’s government “in the coming hours,” Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage, a spokesman for the militia, said in comments aired on Holy Quran Radio, a Mogadishu-based broadcaster, today.
Somalia has been mired in a civil war for two decades and hasn’t had a functioning central government since the 1991 ouster of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre.