Residents of Somalia’s war-torn capital fled fighting Monday after remnants of extremist Shabab rebel forces, who pulled out of Mogadishu at the weekend, battled with government troops overnight.
“We are very worried, and many people have already fled to stay away from the firing,” said Abdulahi Duale, a resident from the famine-stricken capital’s northern Suqaholaha district.
“We could hear shooting close to our neighborhood,” he added.
The Al Qaeda-affiliated rebels - who had controlled around half of Mogadishu - abandoned their positions in a surprise withdrawal on Saturday.
Fighting late on Sunday took place in several locations in the south and north of the city, as African Union-backed government troops set up bases in former Shebab strongholds.
“We could hear the heavy fighting on Sunday night,” said Huda Ali, another resident.
“We are planning to flee because there are stray bullets reaching close to us now.”
Government officials celebrated the hardline rebel pullout, but the Shebab say it is merely “a change of military tactics.”
“It was the second day of our changed tactics, and the mujahedeen fighters carried out at least five attacks,” Shebab spokesman Abdulaziz Abu Musab told reporters.
“We have inflicted heavy losses on the enemy... where the Christian invading forces tried to expand,” he added.
Government forces dismissed the rebel claims, reporting only sporadic shooting as soldiers moved cautiously into former Shebab-held areas.
“Our forces are making a gradual advancement into areas of the city where the Islamist militants have left,” said Abdikarin Dhegobadan, a senior government officer.
“There is no resistance we are encountering so far - the very few rebels remaining are running away, and just firing shots from far away,” he added.
The city was quieter on Monday morning after fighting during the night, but residents continued to move out, fearing further conflict.
About 100,000 people from drought-stricken areas have come to Mogadishu over the past two months in search of food, water and shelter, and aid efforts to reach them continued Monday.
The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) airlifted urgent supplies into the city, the group’s first such operation in five years.
Relief items are normally delivered by road or sea, but the “unprecedented rise” in civilians fleeing famine forced the agency to airlift supplies to save time, it said.
The 31-metric-tonne delivery, the first of three flights due in coming days, included 2,500 kits containing plastic sheeting for shelter, sleeping mats and blankets, as well as water and cooking utensils.
“This airlift of emergency assistance items will allow us to continue delivering aid to those displaced by drought and famine,” UNHCR Somalia representative Bruno Geddo said in a statement.
It renewed a call for funds, warning that the $65 million (45 million euros) it has received or been promised was less than 45 percent of the $145 million the UNHCR estimates it needs to deal with the crisis affecting the Horn of Africa.
The United Nations has officially declared famine for the first time this century in Somalia, including in Mogadishu and in four southern Somali regions, and warned that it could spread.
Much of southern Somalia - including the majority of regions declared to be in famine - is controlled by the Shabab rebels, who have banned several key aid agencies from operating.
Drought-hit Somalia is “the most severe humanitarian crisis in the world today and Africa’s worst food security crisis since Somalia’s 1991-92 famine,” the United Nations has warned.
Parts of Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya and Uganda have also been hit by the Horn of Africa’s worst drought in decades.
The Shabab had for two years been promising to topple the Western-backed government in Mogadishu, but always fell short of smashing its last defenses despite a deadly and costly offensive.