Somali Islamist rebels abandoned several key positions in Mogadishu overnight that were then taken over by government troops, witnesses and the African Union said on Saturday.
Pro-government AU troops have been battling Shebab 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.
“This morning there is not a single Islamist fighter facing off the Somali government forces”, Abdi Mohamed, a witness said.
Another, Dahir Adan, told AFP: “This morning every Shebab controlled position is empty, they moved their belongings on trucks.”
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.”
A spokesman for the Al-Qaeda-inspired Shebab rebels, Ali Mohamed Rage, said the events involved “a change of military tactics.”
“The Mujahideen fighters applied military tactic changes to undermine the allied enemy of Allah and you will soon be hearing a good news.”
The United Nations says tens of thousands of people have died in the Horn of Africa famine — which some experts link to climate change — and the virtual anarchy inside Somalia.
Somalia has lacked a central government for two decades, with civil war raging since longtime leader Mohammed Siad Barre was ousted in a coup in late 1991.
Shebab fighters are waging a bloody campaign to overthrow the country’s Western-backed transitional government, created in 2004 pending elections, and now control vast swathes of the south and centre of the country.
The UN has estimated that nearly half of Somalia’s estimated 10 million people require humanitarian assistance — the majority in areas controlled by the Shebab, which expelled Western aid groups two years ago.
The UN has officially declared famine for the first time this century.
Since February, AMISOM with its 9,000 Ugandan and Burundian soldiers has made progress in pushing the Islamists back from two main frontlines of the capital.
Until Saturday morning, government and AU troops controlled just over half of Mogadishu, including the airport and port, while the Shebab controlled the city’s north-east.