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Al-Shabaab has withdrawn from Mogadishu – but what happens now?

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Al-Shabaab has withdrawn from Mogadishu – but what happens now?

Al-Shabaab, the Islamist insurgents fighting a weak Somali government, announced a "tactical" withdrawal from Mogadishu last week. What will this mean for the relief effort?

Why did al-Shabaab leave Mogadishu?

The retreat by the rebels, who still control most of famine-struck southern Somalia, surprised many. They had lost ground when troops from the African Union (AU) peacekeeping force (Amisom), attacked al-Shabaab positions in the past fortnight. Al-Shabaab – a core of 2,500 Somalis with several hundred foreign fighters – lost control of Bakara market, a key source of "tax" revenue, but al-Shabaab had not suffered a clear-cut defeat. An al-Shabaab spokesman, Sheikh Ali Mohamed Rage, said the move was "a change in tactics", but it can be seen as a sign of growing weakness and divisions in the Islamist ranks that stem from rebels' handling of the famine, as well as a shortage of cash. The more hardline elements of al-Shabaab have denied there is even a famine and oppose the presence of most western aid agencies in areas under their control in the south, where the famine is concentrated.

What will the withdrawal mean for the aid agencies?

Relief groups say it is far too early to say. The UN's World Food Programme, which considers Somalia one of the world's toughest environments for aid workers, has offered only a terse statement on the implications of al-Shabaab's withdrawal. "WFP is focused on delivering food assistance to as many of the hungry as is operationally possible. Our only concern is trying to feed as many people as we can in the midst of this enormous humanitarian crisis." Such caution is understandable. Fourteen WFP workers have been killed in Somalia and it's unclear what al-Shabaab is up to. Al-Shabaab may have withdrawn but it could resort to tactics that proved so effective during the Ethiopian occupation – roadside bomb attacks, suicide missions and assassinations. A guerilla campaign could be highly disruptive for the relief effort in Mogadishu. In any case, al-Shabaab is only one worry. Private militias, with political connections, are competing to guard or steal food. Last week, government troops killed at least 10 people when fighting broke out over food at a UN distribution site in Mogadishu.

What about the situation outside Mogadishu?

The main areas of concern at the two southern regions of Bakool and Lower Shabelle regions, where famine was first declared last month. The UN says it has still not been given permission to enter many areas. There have also been reports that armed groups have barred people from leaving drought-hit areas to seek help. Some groups, however, such as Islamic Relief and Unicef have been able to operate in the south. Bastien Vigneau, Unicef's man for south and central Somalia, says access depends on constant dialogue with local administrations and committees and strict neutrality. It seems that Unicef's focus on saving children gives it more leeway with al-Shabaab. One US estimate says 29,000 children have died in the past three months. The UN says it is hard to have precise figures but that at least tens of thousands have died in southern Somalia from the beginning of April to the end of June, half of them younger than five. In all, 12.4 million people in Somalia, Kenya – where many Somali refugees have fled to – Ethiopia and Djibouti urgently need help. The aid effort has been hampered by a lack of resources, especially earlier in the year

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