Mogadishu residents awoke yesterday to find that war had left the city for the first time in four years as Islamic militants al-Shabaab withdrew unexpectedly from their positions in the Somali capital.
The trenches that scar the Indian Ocean port city were abandoned, sniper's rooftop nests were emptied and tyre tracks in the sports stadium grass were all that remained of a force that had threatened to overrun Mogadishu.
The unexpected retreat received a cautious welcome from aid agencies as fighting between an African Union (AU) force and the Somali militants had complicated famine relief efforts. More than 100,000 starving Somalis have trekked into the capital in the past two months as the worst famine in 20 years has blighted the south and central areas of the Horn of Africa nation. The security situation and shortfalls in funding mean that only 28 per cent of the estimated 2.4 million people in famine areas have so far received assistance.
Residents in several neighbourhoods of the Somali capital said that al-Shabaab fighters had packed up and left the city abruptly in the early hours of Saturday. "We aren't leaving you, but we have changed our tactics," al-Shabaab commander, Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage, told local radio.
A spokesman for the UN-backed transitional government – that has frequently boasted that it was about to break out of the small enclave it has controlled with AU backing – claimed that its forces had "liberated" the city.
"This is a big day and a tremendous step forward towards a more stable Somalia," said the transitional Prime Minister, Dr Abdiweli Mohamed Ali. "They are foreign and motivated by a violent ideology. And the people do not want them here."
Despite the posturing by the transitional government, which has previously been condemned for siphoning off donor funds meant to pay its own soldiers, it appeared unlikely that the Shabaab retreat was a straightforward military victory. The battle in Mogadishu has never been a simple two-sided affair, with commanders of ragtag militias switching sides almost weekly. Government forces include militia fighters who recently killed four people in the crossfire of an argument over switching on lights. And government soldiers were accused of shooting civilians who attempted to stop them looting humanitarian supplies at a feeding camp.
While most observers welcomed al- Shabaab's withdrawal, most agreed that it was likely to be connected to the continuing famine. "The politics of famine are relevant in this," said Sally Healy, director of the Africa programme at the Chatham House think tank. "Neither side is that militarily strong, so it's probably not about military power: it's more likely a shift in priorities by those supporting the Shabaab."
Al-Shabaab, an alliance of Islamic militias that became powerful as a resistance force during the Ethiopian occupation, sees itself as a nationalist force fighting a Western-backed stooge government. It has drawn much of its support from Somalia's large global diaspora and analysts suggested that some of this assistance may have been redirected because of the famine.
Al-Shabaab has been accused by many Somalis of preventing starving people from accessing help in the capital and is blamed for forcing aid agencies out of the regions it controls. The UN World Food Programme (WFP) has refused to comment on the surprise exit saying its priority remains "improving humanitarian access". The WFP has 23 feeding centres in the city, four of which were behind al-Shabaab lines before the withdrawal.