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Al Shabab retreat could be precursor to more violence

The Islamist rebels’ withdrawal from the Somalian ­capital is a result of differences between factions and could ­signal a change in tactics from direct military ­engagement to guerrilla-style warfare, experts say.

NAIROBI // African peacekeepers have forced Somalia's Al Shabab Islamists to abandon their campaign to hold the capital Mogadishu, but the fighters' retreat hardly ends the country's bloodshed and could herald a wave of Al Qaeda-style suicide attacks.

As convoys of Al Shabab pickup trucks with mounted machine guns sped from Mogadishu, President Sheikh Sharif Mohammed - whose rule is limited to the capital and propped up by 9,000 Ugandan and Burundian troops - held a news conference to declare victory.

The fighters, who still control most of the south of the country, insisted they would fight another day.

"We aren't leaving you, but we have changed our tactics," a spokesman, Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage, said on local radio.

Many Somalis and outside experts said it was too early for the government to declare a triumph. In a country long without effective central government and now suffering mass hunger from the worst drought in decades, peace remains a distant prospect.

But rifts among Al Shabab's leaders, exacerbated by their handling of the famine, could also provide an opportunity to loosen the militia's grip on the areas it controls.

A string of offensives this year - led by the African peacekeeping force with Somalia's army in tow - gradually tightened the noose around Al Shabab's forces in Mogadishu.

Last month, the fighters lost control of the capital's Bakara market, the nerve centre of their Mogadishu operations and a crucial source of revenue. That left them with little more than a few mostly empty neighbourhoods of little strategic interest.

Those losses exposed rifts in Al Shabab's leadership between an international wing influenced by foreign fighters who favour guerrilla tactics like suicide bombings, and others who sought a conventional military strategy of holding territory.

The abandonment of Mogadishu suggests the international faction won the day.

"If that is the case then Al Shabab might leave other cities [under their control] like Baidoa and Afgoye, melt away in the population and turn to guerrilla warfare, explosions, assassinations or suicide attacks," said Afyare Elmi at Qatar University's International Affairs department.

Since 2007, Mr Ahmed's authority has effectively stretched only as far as the territory held by the peacekeepers. Winning Mogadishu might expand the overnment's sway, Horn of Africa experts say, but there is little guarantee it will bring peace elsewhere.

Some even question the government's ability to fill the power vacuum in the neighbourhoods abandoned by Al Shabab, warning that other militia could fill the void.

Mr Ahmed "had to make that statement, he has to appear that he is in control. But Somalis will be laughing," said the London-based Somali analyst Hamza Mohamed. "There is not one single area of Mogadishu controlled solely by government troops."

The militants still hold sway over much of central and southern Somalia, and have other sources of revenue, including taxes from ports and a cut of some ransoms paid to pirate gangs.

But Al Shabab is also confronted with mending internal rifts, made more stark by the famine gripping the south, where 2.8 million people require lifesaving food aid.

Early last month Al Shabab appeared to lift a ban on food aid, only then to seemingly backtrack. Its legitimacy has been shredded by attempts to halt people fleeing areas to seek food, said J Peter Pham of the Atlantic Council, a US think tank.

"The ongoing hunger has exposed divisions between the hardline core leadership of Al Shabab which denies the crisis and refuses to allow aid in, and clan-based militia forces in various places ... who have announced a willingness to allow humanitarian assistance to come in," he said.

The famine is depriving Al Shabab of revenue and decimating its recruitment pool as hundreds of thousands of hungry people flee to Mogadishu and neighbouring Kenya and Ethiopia.

The erosion of legitimacy may offer Somalia's government and western powers an opportunity, said Mark Schroeder of the global intelligence company Stratfor.

"[There are] foreign elements trying to figure out how to take advantage of the famine to undermine Al Shabab, not necessarily in a military way but more politically."

* Reuters

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