Al-Shabaab ‘dug in like rats’
Police commissioner Ali Hassan pointed to the deep trench running to a wall at the back of the police station.
“That’s how al-Shabaab broke in,” he said. “They dug in like rats.”
That was one year ago, when - after years of attacks - the rebel group took control of the Abdul-Aziz district in Mogadishu, making it their tactical headquarters.
They were finally forced out on Friday night after about two weeks of heavy fighting with forces from the AU Mission in Somalia (Amisom).
At the weekend, police and Mogadishu residents leapt over the deep trenches cut in the road - used by al-Shabaab to move between buildings without exposing themselves to enemy fire - and sifted through the rubble of the homes and offices they were forced to flee a year ago.
Translators, drivers and security personnel crowded around car radios, listening to news broadcasts. The frequencies of the two rebel-controlled radio stations were dead.
“We knew al-Shabaab had been preparing its forces for an attack during Ramadaan,” said Colonel Paul Lokech, contingent commander of the Ugandan AU forces. “We decided not to wait.”
On July 28 Amisom launched Operation Free Mogadishu.
On the first day of fighting, they captured the city’s telecommunications infrastructure and part of the Bakara market, the economic heart of Mogadishu.
Then al-Shabaab launched a counter-attack, sending two would-be suicide bombers dressed as soldiers into an AU base. The pair were killed before they could detonate their vests, but only after they had shot dead four AU officers.
A surprise attack on Friday night was the deciding factor.
After about six hours of heavy fighting, al-Shabaab began withdrawing its forces from the four remaining districts they still controlled.
Earlier reports suggested as many as 35 rebels had been arrested, though Lokech puts the number at six. Five Amisom soldiers were wounded.
Lokech says Amisom now controls 90 percent of the city.
“We are very happy,” said resident Abdi Salam. “Al-Shabaab lost the support of the people when they started attacking the civilians.”
Last year, dozens of civilians and three government ministers were killed when a suicide bomber targeted a university graduation ceremony, an attack for which al-Shabaab claimed responsibility.
“All the people hated them that day,” said Salam.
But the recent gains do not necessarily mean peace for Mogadishu.
Some residents are worried that al-Shabaab’s departure will mean the return of the warlords, who used the city as a lawless playground for years.
And Amisom warns that many rebels will have melted into the local population. “We have indications that they will try to launch another attack,” said Lokech. “And we wish them all the best of luck, but we will be prepared.” - The Star