A demonstration organized by Al Shabaab, the Somali insurgents who are allied to Al Qaeda, in Mogadishu, on July 5, 2010.The demonstrators carried placards written with slogans against the African Union peace keeping force.
Credit: Abdurashid Abikar

Somalia' Islamist extremist rebels dramatically pulled out of the capital Mogadishu Saturday which should speed up the distribution of emergency food to famine victims.

The Al Shabaab militants, who are allied to Al Qaeda, have left 90 percent of Mogadishu, according to Somali Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali.

The Somali transitional government and a African Union military force have been gaining ground against the extremist rebels in recent weeks, winning control of the city's central Bakari market.

"Al Shabaab and Al Qaeda are a menace to Somalia and it is happy news that we defeated them in Mogadishu," said Somali President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed on Saturday, according to CNN.

But he warned Mogadishu residents not to rush to areas vacated by Al Shabaab fighters, saying the group may have booby-trapped the area. He also warned of possible suicide bombings.

The Western-backed transitional government plans to send security forces into the new areas vacated by the militants. 

The militants said their move out of Mogadishu is merely a tactical retreat. "We shall fight the enemy wherever they are," said Al Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamed Rage to a local radio station.

The withdrawal is a noteworthy setback for Al Shabaab, which has controlled large parts of Mogadishu since the group was launched in 2007. 

However Al Shabaab may be just seeking cover among the civilian population and may still pose a serious threat, warned Lieutenant-Colonel Paddy Ankunda, spokesman for the 9,000-strong African Union peacekeeping forces in Mogadishu.

"We need more troops now than ever before. The area has become too big for the force to cover," said Ankunda.

The famine that is gripping Somalia appears to have been a decisive blow to the extremist rebels. They had blocked many international aid organizations from distributing food in the southern areas and have complicated efforts to help those in Mogadishu.

Al Shabaab leaders gave conflicting orders on whether or not international food aid and humanitarian assistance. But thousands of hungry Somalis paid little heed to Al Shabaab and flocked to food distributions points rather than starve.

More than 29,000 children under the age of five have died in the last 90 days in the country's south alone, according to United States estimates.

Sodio Omar Hassan, who was seeking treatment for her child's malaria at a hospital set up by African Union peacekeepers, said people were angry at Al Shabaab's response to the relief effort. She said the rebels refused to allow the United Nations to distribute maize and cooking oil in territory it controls.

"People are angry now they are dying," she said. "Al-Shabaab don't bring us anything."

More than 12 million people in the Horn of Africa need immediate food aid but al-Shabaab proclaims it would be better to starve than accept Western aid. The UN says 640,000 children are acutely malnourished in Somalia.

Somalis who have fled the famine zones say that militants are threatening refugees who leave the south, and often stop — and sometimes kill — the men.

Somalia has been mired in war and anarchy for two decades, and piracy flourishes off its coastline. In a sign of how desperate the famine has become, many Somalis have fled from rural areas to Mogadishu, a war zone where African Union forces have been battling the Al Shabab militants daily.

Related Stories