Somalia’s capital has been “fully liberated” from Islamist Al Shabaab rebels, the country’s president said on Saturday.
“Mogadishu has been fully liberated from the enemy, and the rest of the country will soon be liberated too,” Sharif Sheikh Ahmed told reporters.
The Al Qaeda affiliated Al Shabaab insurgents abandoned several key positions in Mogadishu overnight, that were then taken over by government troops.
“We are very happy -- the fruits of bloodshed and the wars that we fought against the rebels are finally attained,” Ahmed said.
African peacekeepers and Somali government forces have been steadily wresting control of the rubble-strewn capital from the militants this year. Al Shabaab has never previously entirely abandoned Mogadishu during the course of a four-year insurgency that has killed tens of thousands of people.
Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage, spokesman for the Shabaab movement, told a local radio station the retreat that started late on Friday was tactical and that the rebels would hold their positions elsewhere.
“We have abandoned Mogadishu but we remain in other towns,” Rage said on the Al Shabaab-run Andalus radio station.
African Union-backed government troops have been battling the rebels in Mogadishu in an offensive to secure aid delivery routes for victims of the drought threatening some 12 million people in Somalia and other Horn of Africa countries.
“We have two enemies to fight - one of them is the Shabaab, while the other is those who try to rob the people,” the president said.
“We will not tolerate looting, and anyone found committing such a crime will be brought to justice.”
Lawless Somalia is awash with rival militia factions. On Friday, food aid being handed out to famine victims in Mogadishu was looted by gunmen, who killed five people.
Until Saturday morning, government and AU troops controlled just over half of Mogadishu, including the airport and port, while the Shabaab controlled the city’s north-east.
“The enemy is defeated, they pulled out of Mogadishu -- and we will fight them to eliminate them from the rest of the country,” Somalia’s Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali said.
Shabaab fighters are waging a bloody campaign to overthrow the country’s Western-backed transitional government, and control large areas of the south and centre of the country.
Major Paddy Ankunda, a spokesman for the AU’s AMISOM force in Somalia, said: “We’re getting reports that they have pulled out from all their positions. We are still verifying.
“We’re very very cautious because it could be a trap.”
Somalia has been without effective central government since the fall of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre 20 years ago.