NAIROBI (Reuters) - African peacekeepers have forced Somalia’s al Shabaab 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 Shabaab pickup trucks with mounted machine guns sped from Mogadishu, President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed -- 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,” 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 Shabaab’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 Shabaab’s forces in Mogadishu.
Last month, the fighters lost control of the capital’s Bakara market, nerve-center of their Mogadishu operations and a crucial source of revenue. That left them with little more than a few mostly-empty neighborhoods of little strategic interest.
Those losses exposed rifts in al-Shabaab’s leadership between an international wing influenced by foreign fighters who favor 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 Shabaab 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, Ahmed’s authority has effectively stretched only as far as the territory held by the peacekeepers. Winning Mogadishu might expand the government’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 neighborhoods abandoned by al Shabaab, warning that other militia could fill the void.
Ahmed “had to make that statement, he has to appear that he is in control. But Somalis will be laughing,” said 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 Shabaab 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 Shabaab 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 with U.S. think-tank the Atlantic Council.
“The ongoing hunger has exposed divisions between the hardline core leadership of al Shabaab 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 Shabaab of revenue and decimating its recruitment pool as hundreds of thousands of hungry people flee to Mogadishu and neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia.
The erosion of legitimacy may offer Somalia’s government and Western powers an opportunity, said Mark Schroeder of global intelligence company Stratfor.
“(There are)foreign elements trying to figure out how to take advantage of the famine to undermine al Shabaab, not necessarily in a military way but more politically.”
(This story corrects Somali president’s name in second paragraph)
Editing by James Macharia