The Shabab Islamist rebels unexpectedly left Mogadishu early Saturday, surprising residents who poured out onto the streets to “cheer and jeer their departure,” reports the New York Times. It wasn’t clear whether the move was a retreat or merely a shift in tactics in preparation for a counterattack, but the government was quick to claim victory. The country "welcomes the success by the Somali government forces backed by (African Union peacekeepers) who defeated the enemy of Shabab," President Sheikh Shairf Sheikh Ahmed told reporters, according to the Los Angeles Times. But a Shabab spokesman told local radio that the retreat was only a tactical move.
Although the retreat could be an admission that the rebels, who espouse a brutal interpretation of Islamic law, can’t fight against a government backed by foreign powers, it also “raises the specter of an escalation in al-Qaida inspired raids,” notes Reuters. Having come after intense firefights Friday night, the move, at the very least, seems to confirm claims that Shabab has been getting weaker. Analysts have also claimed that the rebels are running out of money because funding from abroad has dwindled, reports the BBC. Merely retreating from Mogadishu is likely to mean “a major economic blow” to the rebels because of taxes they collected on the city’s main markets, notes Kenya’s Daily Nation. Still, even if the retreat is real it is unlikely to bring peace to the rest of the country.
At the very least, the move has raised hopes that aid groups would be able to deliver desperately needed supplies to starving families in a country where 3.2 million people are in need of assistance, according to the United Nations. Still, there isn’t much optimism. “Very few analysts think peaceful days are ahead in Mogadishu,” writes the BBC’s Will Ross.