MOGADISHU Somalia's al Shabaab rebels retreated from the southern port of Kismayu overnight, abandoning the last major bastion of their five-year revolt to an offensive by African Union and Somali government troops.
The loss of Kismayu a day after it was attacked by Kenyan and Somali soldiers backed by air strikes is a major blow to the al Qaeda-linked rebels, weakening morale and depriving them of revenue from taxing local businesses and shipping.
"We moved out our fighters ... from Kismayu at midnight," al Shabaab spokesman, Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage, told Reuters on Saturday, promising to strike back. "The enemies have not yet entered the town. Let them enter Kismayu which will soon turn into a battlefield."
The Kenya Defence Force (KDF) said two regional rebel commanders, Sheikh Hassan Yakub and Sheikh Abdikarim Adow, were killed in air strikes in the city late on Friday and that another five insurgents were killed in combat. Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, al Shabaab's spokesman for military operations, told Reuters the rebels had suffered no losses.
Al Shabaab, which formally merged with al Qaeda in February, has pulled out of a number of urban areas including the capital, Mogadishu, in recent months under pressure from African Union (AU) peacekeeping forces and the Somali government.
The government in Mogadishu said Kismayu was now under its control and called on residents to co-operate with security agencies and AU forces in improving security.
"The Somali Armed Forces with support from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) have secured the port town of Kismayu from the grip of the terror group of al Shabaab who controlled the town for nearly three years," it said in a statement.
Kenyan military spokesman Col. Cyrus Oguna declined to comment on the statement by the Somali government, saying Kenyan troops, fighting under the AMISOM banner, were yet to take control of the port facilities.
Locals confirmed the militants had pulled out under the cover of darkness but said Kenyan and Somali soldiers were still camped on the city's outskirts.
Analysts warned against prematurely assuming the rebels had disappeared, saying they must have left a few fighters behind.
"This is not an indication of al Shabaab having abandoned armed struggle and there is no evidence they are keen on surrendering. They will continue to be a great nuisance for a very long time," said Rashid Abdi, a Somalia expert and an editor with Kenya's Nation Media Group.
The insurgents, who once controlled swathes of the lawless Horn of Africa country, have turned to guerrilla tactics, harrying the weak government of newly-elected President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud with suicide bombings and assassinations.
"NOW WE ARE TERRIFIED"
There were reports of looting in some areas of the city.
"Al Shabaab has not perished, so the worry is what next," said local elder Ali Hussein.
One man who was loudly celebrating the departure of al Shabaab fighters from the city was shot dead, residents said.
"These masked men came from behind him and hit him with several bullets right in the head ... Now we are terrified. Everyone in Kismayu is dumb, silent. We are afraid to talk on the phone outdoors," said Halima Nur, a mother of three.
Four more people, including a Muezzin - the person who calls prayers at a mosque - were shot dead in the same manner in the afternoon, residents told Reuters.
Although al Shabaab brought a semblance of law and security in Kismayu, its strict version of Islamic law alienated a huge portion of the population, residents said.
"We hope life will improve if the Somali and AU troops enter the town," said local Farah Hussein.
Residents said the fighters who abandoned Kismayu had moved to jungles that lie between Kismayu and Afmadow to the north, as well as to other towns north of the port city like Jamame and Kabsuma.
The rebel group, which counts foreign al Qaeda-trained fighters among its ranks, is seen as one of the biggest threats to stability in the Horn of Africa. It has received advice from al Qaeda's leadership, counter-terrorism experts say.