GALKAYO, Somalia (AP) — Fighters from Somalia's Islamist extremist rebels have started to leave their remaining coastal stronghold in the face of advancing allied African troops, residents and a military official said Tuesday.
Armed militants from al-Shabab, which is allied to al-Qaida, left the coastal town of Kismayo in pickup trucks after freeing prisoners in the town's jail, Muse Hassan, a Kismayo resident said by phone.
The spokesman for the Kenyan army, which is part of the African Union forces fighting al-Shabab militants, said the fighters were fleeing because they sensed defeat. Col. Cyrus Oguna said the al-Shabab militants are moving toward the town of Jilib about 80 miles (130 kilometers) northeast of Kismayo. Oguna said Kenyan forces are about 20 miles (30 kilometers) from Kismayo in a town called Jana Cabdalla.
Kismayo resident Hassan also said the militants are moving toward the town of Jilib but that it was not clear if they had abandoned all their positions in Kismayo.
However an al-Shabab spokesman said on Twitter that the reports of militants fleeing Kismayo are "blatant lies."
"The Islamic administration in (hash)Kismayo is going about its business as usual, & the city remains calm & firmly under the control of HSM," one posting said.
Claims and counter-claims made during fighting in Somalia are difficult to verify.
But Yusuf Hashi, another Kismayo resident, said that a few fighters in military dress could be seen along Kismayo's streets. He said government buildings were empty.
"It feels like the town is under no one's control now. We hope there'll be no fighting but a peaceful change," he said.
Oguna said the militants had dismantled the transmitters for Radio al-Andalus which the group used to broadcast propaganda.
Abdirashid Hashi, a horn of Africa analyst with the International Crisis Group, says he is not surprised that the militants are moving. The militants have not put up cohesive resistance in the southern Somali towns they once controlled, he said, noting that al-Shabab doesn't have the firepower to match the tanks, warships and military planes the Kenyan military is using in southern Somalia.
Hashi said the capture of Kismayo by the allied force is imminent and would be a significant victory against the militants who until August 2011 controlled large parts of the capital city, Mogadishu, and much of southern Somalia. However, he said al-Shabab would remain a threat as an insurgent force using hit-and-run attacks for a long while.
Oguna said when faced with overwhelming force al-Shabab fighters often hide their guns and melt into the population so it is difficult to say how many al-Shabab fighters remain in Kismayo.
The U.N.'s refugee agency said Tuesday that at least 5,200 residents have fled Kismayo since Sept 1.
Kismayo residents have said that al-Shabab barred them from the leaving the town with threats of brutal punishment. Al-Shabab is known for carrying out lashings, amputations and stonings.
Somalia elected a new president last week and he is expected to set up the country's first functioning government since warlords overthrew a longtime dictator in 1991 and turned against one another. Two days after being elected, President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud survived an attack by suicide bombers who detonated explosives at his temporary residence.
At the United Nations in New York, the Security Council welcomed Mohamud's election as a milestone in the troubled nation's "path to a more stable and accountable" government, but warned much remains to be done to improve security, human rights and fight corruption.
British U.N. ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said the council voted unanimously Tuesday to endorse Mohamud's inauguration, signaling the end of an 8-year-long U.N.-backed transition which helped establish a parliament and constitution.
"Somalia now has a real opportunity to progress toward a more peaceful future," Grant said. "The end of the transition is however only the beginning. Somalia still faces a significant threat from al-Shabab."
A high-level meeting on Somalia will be held at this month's U.N. General Assembly, where Mohamud will have a chance "to set out his vision for Somalia," Grant said.
Regaining Kismayo has "always been a long-term objective" of the U.N.-backed AU force, Grant said.
Odula contributed to this report from Nairobi, Kenya. Associated Press writer Ron DePasquale contributed from the United Nations.