Al-Qaeda linked Shebab after giving themselves up to forces of the African Union Mission in Somalia. Photo: AFP

Shebab Islamists abandon last stronghold in Somalia

Al-Qaeda linked Shebab rebels said on Saturday they have abandoned the southern Somali port city of Kismayo, their last bastion in the country, a day after an assault by African Union troops.

“The military command of Shebab mujahedeen ordered a tactical retreat at midnight,” Shebab spokesman Ali Mohamud Rage said.

The announcement came after an assault Friday on the city by African Union forces, which had been trying to dislodge the insurgents from the key coastal city for days.

Residents in the city confirmed that the Islamist fighters seemed to have moved outside city lines and that their radio station, Radio Andalus, was off the air.

“We don’t know where they went to... but early this morning the last military vehicle left the town,” said Hassan Ali, a resident.

“Even their radio station is off air,” he added.

Shebab fighters on the ground also confirmed the withdrawal.

“We got orders from our superiors to withdraw from the city.... This is part of broader military tactics we have set for the enemy,” Sheikh Mohamed Abu-Fatma, a Shebab commander, said by telephone.

The Kenya Defence Force confirmed the Shebab withdrawal and said they would be moving into the areas that were under Shebab control at the time of the Friday assault.

“As soon as we consolidate, we will move to take the rest of the city,” Kenya Defence Forces spokesman Cyrus Oguna said.

He said the northern part of Kismayo was under the complete control of the allied forces but as of Friday night “some parts of the south were still under the Shebab.”

Residents claim that the withdrawing militia bust open the gates of the main prison in Kismayo and the police station.

“Last night they have released the prisoners from the jail and I saw three civilians shot dead by Shebab after accusing them of spying, they left and no one of them is here today,” Abdikarim Hussein, another resident said.

Kismayo has been a vital lifeline for the Shebab since the African Union force in Somalia (AMISOM) re-conquered most of Mogadishu last year and Ethiopian troops stripped them of other key cities in the west.

The looming assault on the port city which has been on the cards for the past four weeks has led to the displacement of an estimated 12,000 people who have fled the city. Kismayo’s total population is estimated at between 160,000 and 190,000.

The Shebab seized Kismayo from Somalia’s weak central government in 2008.

The Kenyan military has have been aiming to take Kismayo ever since it rolled troops and tanks across the border to fight the Islamist extremists almost a year ago. Reaching its goal has taken longer than anticipated.

The recapture of Kismayo is seen as a major boost to the newly-established central administration in Mogadishu and would pave the way for government troops backed regional forces to reclaim much of southern Somalia.

Observers have consistently said that the loss of Kismayo would leave the Shebab, who once controlled 80 per cent of the country, unable to retain large swathes of territory.

The other key Shebab-held towns of Afgoye, Baidoa and the port of Marka have all fallen in recent months.

But in places where the Shebab have abandoned fixed positions, most notably in the capital Mogadishu, they have switched to guerrilla tactics and remain a threat.

Experts have warned that the Shebab -- who implement an extreme form of sharia law in the areas they control, amputating thieves and stoning “adulterous” women – can sow just as much chaos and death by reverting to guerrilla tactics.