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The al-Shabab Islamic militants of Somalia are in retreat.

The Times
Thursday, September 27, 2012

Such is the pressure that one senior commander has even prayed for rain to help to defend their last significant stronghold against an impending military assault.

The prayers in Kismayo came as Kenyan and Somali forces tightened their noose on the Indian Ocean port, the last important city under the control of the fighters linked to al-Qa'ida.

Sheik Hassan Yaqub told 300 diehard supporters in the city's Liberty Park that rains would stop the "invaders" in their tracks.

"If the rain comes, they will be struck and we will capture their vehicles," he said, to shouts of "Allahu akbar!" or "God is great!"

His prayers had all the hallmarks of a last resort. But rains have saved al-Shabab before. The Kenyan troops that invaded Somalia late last year forfeited momentum and the element of surprise when wet weather made the roads to Kismayo impassable.

Kenyan officials have since claimed several times that the capture of the city was imminent. But it was only last week, when their troops reached within 40km of the city centre, that al-Shabab's radio briefly interrupted its broadcasts and hundreds of Islamic militants were seen fleeing the city, taking their heavy weapons.

Mohamud Abdi Hassan, the MP for Kismayo, who is forced to live in Mogadishu, the capital, said yesterday al-Shabab's radio station had resumed broadcasts.

Cyrus Oguna, a spokesman for the Kenyan Defence Force, said their fighter jets were behind an airstrike on Kismayo's airport on Wednesday. The planes had destroyed a big al-Shabab weapons dump, he said yesterday.

TheUN said more than 10,000 people have fled the city this month alone, fearing a repeat of the street-to-street fighting that ravaged Mogadishu last year.

Top Somali officials hope Kismayo may yet fall without a fight if a series of clandestine deals to switch allegiances succeed.

"We have a military operation planned, but we hope we can win the city without going to war," said Deputy Prime Minister and Acting Defence Minister Hussein Arab Isse.

He said the offensive and the negotiations were on track, despite an incident on Monday when six unarmed civilians were shot dead by a Kenyan soldier, who has since been arrested. "We would prefer not to fight in the middle of the city," Mr Isse said. "The key is there is no bloodshed. There are talks inside the city, negotiations to put down arms, so we can put in our administration."

The shape of that administration has yet to be agreed, but Mr Isse said it would represent the city's disparate interest groups.

Kismayo's port became al-Shabab's predominant source of income after they were forced out of Mogadishu last year by an African Union (Amisom) force from Uganda and Burundi.

The group has since suffered a series of military defeats to Amisom, Somali and Ethiopian forces, starving them of territory, influence and income. Ahmed Moalim Fiqi, the head of Somalia's National Intelligence Service, said losing the city would be a substantial blow and the militants were retaliating by increasing attacks in the capital.

Two double suicide attacks left 18 people dead just days after Somalia celebrated the inauguration of a new president, Sheik Hassan Mohamud.

"We have experienced a lot of political developments in Somalia, al-Shabab wanted to show that they still have a presence in Mogadishu," Mr Fiqi said. "They are proving they are still here."

Mr Mohamud has said security was his first, second and third priority. But in his first public address after unseating his predecessor, he stressed that the door remained open for al-Shabab to negotiate.

Source: The Times


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