By Mohamed Ibrahim
Sunday, October 5, 2014
MOGADISHU, Somalia — Members of the Shabab, a militant Islamist group, are withdrawing from a strategic town on Somalia’s southern coast as government forces and African Union troops advance toward it, witnesses and residents said Saturday.
Hundreds of civilians have been fleeing the town, Barawe, fearing that they would be caught in the crossfire if fighting breaks out, said one resident, a mother of two who gave only her last name, Abdalla.
“All those who can afford to leave are already gone, and we face constant fears about where to seek refuge if the town comes under attack,” Mrs. Abdalla said. “Only God knows if we will survive.”
Another resident, who asked to remain anonymous because of the uncertainty of the situation, said that some of the Shabab’s armored vehicles had been leaving the town in recent days, but that it was not clear where they were headed.
The town, which is about 130 miles south of the capital, Mogadishu, is accessible by a single landroute. It has been a Shabab stronghold for years.
The Shabab commander in Barawe, Mohamed Abu Abdalla, warned residents on Saturday not to support the government forces.
“Today, as you can see, civilians have been forced to flee, with warships floating on the coast, warplanes flying above and tanks approaching against the civilians,” he said in an audio message posted to Somali websites. “But we are here to stay.”
Somali officials said Saturday that the government troops were six to nine miles outside Barawe, but were proceeding cautiously while checking for land mines planted by the Shabab.
Mohamed Yusuf, a spokesman for the Ministry of National Security, said the army was moving slowly “to minimize casualties.” Mr. Yusuf said the Somali and African Union forces were “clearing mines planted in the road before entering the town.”
Officials say that intelligence reports indicate that the Shabab members have been using boats to flee, disguising themselves as fishermen.
The Shabab, which seeks to overthrow the Somali government, has imposed a strict form of Islamic law in areas under its control.
Operations by the regional African Union force have dislodged the militants from Mogadishu and many of their strongholds.
In September, the Somali forces joined with the African Union troops to drive the Shabab out of several towns, including Adale, about 80 miles northeast of Mogadishu.
Internal discord has shaken the Shabab, which has links to Al Qaeda, and the militants suffered a setback last month when American airstrikes killed their leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane. The group has vowed to avenge his death, and it claimed responsibility for an attack on a convoy carrying African Union troops and Somali officials that killed at least 12 civilians on Sept. 8 about 18 miles south of the capital.
The Somali government recently announced a $1 million reward for information leading to the arrest of the Shabab’s new leader, Ahmad Umar, also known as Abu Ubaidah.