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Somali militants under pressure in last stronghold of Kismayo

Top Islamist Somali militants are said to be fleeing Kismayo as African Union forces close in. The loss of the port city would be a blow to their operations – and their finances.

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African Union forces take positions near the harbor in the port of El-Ma'an a few hours after Somali and African Union forces ousted Al Shabab fighters from the area northeast of Mogadishu, Somalia, Sept. 4.

Farah Abdi Warsameh/AP

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Senior Islamist commanders today began fleeing the last major urban stronghold held by Somalia’s Al Qaeda-allied rebel army, taking their weapons, vehicles, and logistics gear with them, the city's residents say.

The city, with as many as 200,000 inhabitants, is Al Shabab’s last significant remaining operating base. If the Islamists lose Kismayo, they will lose their single most important revenue earner – the city’s port – and a good deal of prestige, analysts say.

"The fight for Kismayo has been trailered so many times it is hard to say if what we're seeing now is the start of Shabab pulling out," says a Western diplomat in Nairobi whose docket includes Somalia. "But there have been several reports today, from different sources, that the big men have left. We're not sure where they'd go, and that clearly is a worry. But if they leave the city with no shots fired, that's got to be a good thing in terms of protection of civilians."

The port city of Kismayo was quiet this morning, several people told The Monitor by telephone. Gone were the gun emplacements, sandbags, generators, and many of the vehicles that cruised the city’s sandy lanes for the last three years.

Young armed men from the Islamist army, Al Shabab, still patrolled, but higher-ranking officers had today disappeared from their usual tea shops and command bases. Even Al Andalus, Al Shabab's radio station, was off the air.

“They are fleeing toward various locations, some are going north, some are going into the forests. It is all the senior men; the young boys are still here in town,” says Abdi Qani Ahmed, a Kismayo trader.

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