MOGADISHU: Somalia's Al-Shabaab rebels retreated from the southern port of Kismayu overnight, the group and residents said, abandoning the last major bastion of their five-year revolt to an offensive by African Union and Somali government troops.
The loss of Kismayu a day after it was attacked by Kenyan and Somali soldiers backed by air strikes will deal a major blow to the al Qaeda-linked rebels, weakening morale and depriving them of revenue from taxing local businesses and shipping.
"We moved out our fighters ... from Kismayu at midnight," al Shabaab spokesman, Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage, told Reuters on Saturday, promising to strike back. "The enemies have not yet entered the town. Let them enter Kismayu which will soon turn into a battlefield."
The Kenya Defence Force (KDF) said two regional rebel commanders, S heikh Hassan Yakub and Sheikh Abdikarim Adow, were killed in ai r strikes in th e city late on Friday a nd that another five insurgents were killed in combat. She ikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, al Shabaab's spokesman for military operations, told Reuters the rebels had suffered no losses.
Al Shabaab, which formally merged with al Qaeda in February, has pulled out of a number of urban areas including the capital, Mogadishu, in recent months under pressure from African Union (AU)peacekeeping forces and the Somali government.
Kenyan military spokesman Col. Cyrus Oguna told Reuters that as of midday on Saturday, his force was in control of the northern half of the city.
Locals confirmed the militants had pulled out under the cover of darkness but said the Kenyan troops, fighting under an African Union peacekeeping force's banner, and Somali soldiers were still camped on the city's outskirts.
Analysts warned against premature celebrations in the wake of the rebels' departure, saying they must have left a few fighters behind.
"This is not an indication of al Shabaab having abandoned armed struggle and there is no evidence they are keen on surrendering. They will continue to be a great nuisance for a very long time," said Rashid Abdi, a Somalia expert and an editor with Kenya's Nation Media Group.
The insurgents, who once controlled swathes of the lawless Horn of Africa country, have turned to guerrilla tactics, harrying the weak government of newly-elected President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud with suicide bombings and assassinations.
There were reports of looting in some areas of the city.
"Al Shabaab has not perished, so the worry is what next," said local elder Ali Hussein.
One man who was loudly celebrating the departure of al Shabaab fighters from the city was shot dead, residents said.
"These masked men came from behind him and hit him with several bullets right in the head .... Now we are terrified, everyone in Kismayu is dumb silent. We are afraid to talk on the phone outdoors," said Halima Nur, a mother of three.
Although al Shabaab brought a semblance of law and security in Kismayu, their strict version of Islamic law a lienated a huge portion of the p o pulation, residents said.
"We hope life will improve if the Somali and AU troops enter the town," said local resident Farah Hussein.
Residents said the fighters who abandoned Kismayu had moved to jungles that lie between Kismayu and Afmadow as well as to other towns north of the port city like Jamame and Kabsuma.
The rebel group, which counts foreign al Qaeda-trained fighters among its ranks, is seen as one of the biggest threats to stability in the Horn of Africa. It has received advice from al Qaeda's leadership, counter-terrorism experts say.