By JASON STRAZIUSO, Associated Press
NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — A year ago, Somalia's government controlled only a small slice of its capital. Today, Islamist insurgents have been pushed out of Mogadishu and are being squeezed by foreign militaries on three sides. Some 300 militants recently fled the country into Yemen, the African Union force commander said Thursday.
Adding even more pressure on the insurgent group al-Shabab, the U.N. Security Council decided Wednesday to increase the AU force in Somalia from 12,000 to 17,700, enabling it to take command of thousands of Kenyan troops who began pouring over the border into southern Somalia in October. Kenya is set to contribute about 4,700 troops to the force, according to a U.N. map of Somalia.
While Al-Shabab has been rocked back on its heels, no one is yet declaring that a knock-out is imminent. The group, which formally merged with al-Qaida this month, did not seem cowed as it rejected efforts by top world officials in a London conference on Thursday to tackle terrorism and piracy in Somalia.
"We will not under any circumstances allow any form of foreign intervention to be used as an instrument to subjugate the Muslims of Somalia," al-Shabab said in a message posted on the microblogging site Twitter.
But pressure on al-Shabab is increasing as the territory it controls in Somalia is shrinking.
Two more African countries — Djibouti and Sierra Leone — are expected to contribute soldiers in coming months to the African Union force in Somalia, which is currently composed of soldiers from Uganda and Burundi, and now, technically at least, Kenya.
Maj. Gen. Fred Mugisha, the Ugandan commander, said the recent announcement that al-Shabab and al-Qaida had formally linked up was an attempt to give a boost of confidence to a Somali insurgent force under retreat. He said the 300 militants — mostly foreign fighters — fled Somalia within days of the announced merger.
"All these are signs of defeat," Mugisha said. "They are inspiring these young children to stand themselves at the front lines but when the going gets tough they flee Somalia."
Mugisha said he believes al-Shabab is at its weakest point in years and is losing ground daily. A year ago this week, the AU forces began pushing al-Shabab from the wrecked seaside Somali capital of Mogadishu. It came at a cost. On Feb. 23, 2011, Somali militants said they paraded the bodies of five African Union peacekeepers killed in the fighting and were holding a soldier from Burundi captive.
Today, Mogadishu is bustling with commerce. Sports fields — barren a year ago — are again in full use. The fear of errant mortar rounds has mostly evaporated.
In recent months al-Shabab has also faced attacks from Kenyan troops in the south. Ethiopian troops in the west are advancing, and took control of the strategic town of Baidoa on Wednesday.
Rashid Abdi, a Somalia analyst who until recently worked for the International Crisis Group, said the recent movement of 300 or so fighters across the narrow Gulf of Aden to Yemen may not mean they were fleeing Somalia, but instead were moving into Yemen to join al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP. But he said there is "no doubt" al-Shabab has been significantly weakened.
"There is a debate on how weakened it is. There are of course some people who are writing off the organization and saying we are beginning to see the end of the movement. But I think that anyone who knows al-Shabab will be a bit cautious," he said.
Abdi added: "My own feeling is that the movement is in serious trouble. It has lost its conventional capabilities. But that said it will continue to wage the insurgency in some shape or form and probably they will use terrorism more than anything else."
Now that al-Shabab has been pushed out of Mogadishu — including its tax base at the city's largest market — its lone source of significant revenue is the port in the southern city of Kismayo, which Kenyan forces now have their eye on.
Kenyan Col. Cyrus Oguna, who participated in the video conference with Mugisha, would not disclose plans on Kismayo. But the port is an obvious goal. A Kenyan soldier inside Somalia was photographed by The Associated Press this week wearing a helmet on which "Tea in Kismayo" was written in Kiswahili.
"We will get there at the appropriate moment," Oguna said. "We are occupying 95,000 square kilometers. That is more or less Rwanda and Burundi together."
Authorities in Kenya on Thursday announced the arrest of six Kenyan members of al-Shabab near the Kenya-Somalia border. Maj. Emmanuel Chirchir, the spokesman for the Kenyan military, said the six were not trying to infiltrate Kenya but were abandoning al-Shabab.
"I think their spines are broken," he said. The arrests were made near the coastal town of Lamu, where al-Shabab carried out several attacks last year.
As part of the increased U.N. Security Council mandate granted Wednesday, African Union forces will receive funds for nine transport helicopters and three attack helicopters. For the first time, the Security Council authorized the AU peacekeepers "to take all necessary measures as appropriate ... to reduce the threat posed by al-Shabab" in its areas of operation, in conjunction with Somali government forces.
Somalia has not had an effective government for more than 20 years.
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