Somalia’s Islamist militants who fled the capital last weekend may regroup and resort to “terrorist tactics” but they have been severely weakened, the U.N. special envoy for the African nation said. Augustine Mahiga was speaking days after al Shabaab, which has been fighting to overthrow Somalia’s government for four years, pulled most of its forces out of Mogadishu amid signs of deepening rifts among its senior commanders.
“In their tactical retreat, so to speak, al Shabaab seemed to have fragmented into three columns,” Mahiga told reporters via video link from the Somali capital. “One column going southwards, another going westward and another going northward,” he said. “And they’re still on the move. This already weakens their consolidated strength.”
Before al Shabaab’s decision to leave the city, Mahiga said, the group’s funding sources had been drying up. He said that al Shabaab has been “starved of financial support. “Most of it was coming from the Gulf and from the Middle East, not from states but from benefactors and the events in those regions seem to have had a negative impact on their sources of financing,” Mahiga said. “And there’s also financing locally, like in Bakara market, which has also been taken by AMISOM and the TFG forces,” he said, referring to an African Union peacekeeping force and Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government.
Bakara market is the “economic hub of Mogadishu,” he said. The Al Shabaab’s rebellion is the latest chapter in Somalia’s two-decade long civil conflict, sparked by the overthrow of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. The group is listed as a terrorist organization by a number of nations, including the United States.
Meanwhile, Uganda has invited Eritrea’s leader, President Isaias Afewerki, accused by the West of stoking Somalia’s Islamist rebellion and destabilizing the East African region, to a state visit next week, Uganda’s State House said. Eritrea rejoined the East African bloc IGAD last month, four years after it walked out on the body in protest at arch-foe Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia to oust an Islamist administration the United States said had ties to al Qaeda. “Eritrea is one of the strategically vital countries to the stability of the region, especially in the Horn of Africa and the wider global agenda,” State House said in a statement.
A U.N. Monitoring Group report on Somalia and Eritrea said in late July that Asmara was bankrolling al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab militants in Somalia. Al Shabaab claimed they were behind a twin suicide bomb attack on the Ugandan capital, Kampala, last year. Horns of Africa experts say that Isaias has become increasingly diplomatically isolated. Leader of one of the world’s most secretive states, Isaias makes few state visits. The U.N. has imposed an arms embargo on Eritrea, as well as a travel ban and an asset freeze on Eritrean political and military leaders who it says are violating an arms embargo on Somalia. Asmara denies the charges, and accuses the United States and neighbouring Ethiopia of “irresponsible interference”.
In another development, the BBC is reporting that the Somali army has warned people not to return home in the parts of the capital, Mogadishu, which were recently abandoned by Islamist militants. Gen Abdi Karim Yusuf Dhagabadan, the deputy army chief, said the areas were mined and not fully secure. Al-Shabab, which controls much of central and southern Somalia, announced over the weekend it was withdrawing from Mogadishu for tactical reasons.
Thousands of famine victims have been fleeing its territory since June. Many of them have been arriving in search of food in Mogadishu, which is now controlled by the weak interim government and by a 9,000-strong African Union force (Amisom) led by Uganda. Al-Shabab banned many aid agencies from areas it rules two years ago. An estimated 12 million people in the Horn of Africa have been affected by the region’s worst drought in 60 years.
The BBC’s Mohamed Mwalimu in Mogadishu says some al-Shabab fighters remain in some parts of the city and sporadic shooting continues. But civilians are returning to the four northern districts previously occupied by them, despite the army’s warning, he says. “I’m a resident of Abdul Aziz district. I was forced out of my home for almost two years and today I’m overwhelmed with joy coming back,” one man told the BBC. Another woman also expressed her joy. “I was living in a camp for displaced people in a former building of the American embassy. I am happy today and we hope the government will succeed,” she said.
The BBC correspondent in Mogadishu says it is the first time he has seen Mogadishu residents so fully supportive of the government – and to his surprise some of them brought food and water to the soldiers patrolling the area.