Mogadishu — Al-Shabaab militants are withdrawing gradually from Bardhere in the Gedo region as hundreds of Somali soldiers, backed by Ethiopian troops, march towards the town to reclaim control and restore law and order.
Local resident Farhan Mohamed Jama said he saw al-Shabaab military convoys and vehicles withdrawing from Bardhere for several nights, heading west towards Burdubo and Dinsor in Bay region.
"There is an atmosphere of lawlessness in the town and al-Shabaab has declared a state of alert in anticipation of attacks against its barracks and strongholds," Jama told Sabahi. "In some streets and centres, there are tens of rebel militants who have started releasing heavy gunfire into the air late at night this past week in an attempt to scare residents and demonstrate their power in the area."
On Thursday evening (January 3rd), al-Shabaab arrested 13 clerics and accused them of conspiring to welcome approaching government forces, Jama said.
Hawa Ahmed Kheyre, a 30-year-old pastry vendor in the Bardhere market, said al-Shabaab has withdrawn some of its fighters from the town to prepare for guerrilla warfare and bombings.
"We live in turbulent times as a result of threats coming from extremists that are scattered throughout the villages and mountains of Gedo region," she said. "We are troubled by the tension, assassinations and prosecution at the hands of the followers of this group that have infiltrated the local population."
Diyad Abdi Kalil, a Somali army officer in Gedo, said Somali forces indeed plan on attacking Bardhere and Burdubo, which are still under al-Shabaab control, but did not say when.
"Our war strategy is to defeat and expel this anti-peace group from the towns and villages it controls in the Gedo region before the end of January," Kalil told Sabahi. "Our forces are ready to launch an attack and we are awaiting orders from our top command in the army and armed forces. We will move after we get the green light and we intend to stage a final counteroffensive."
Loss of Bardhere will cut off supplies to al-Shabaab
Colonel Abbas Ibrahim Gurey, a Somali army commander in Ufurow in the Bay region, said several forces were taking part in securing the region and destroying al-Shabaab hotbeds in the central and southern parts of the country, especially around Bardhere and Burdubo.
Bardhere, home to a large population of Sufis, lies on the banks of the Shabelle River, 344 kilometres southwest of Mogadishu. Because of its location along roads that connect to the Bay and Middle Jubba regions, the Somali army and allied forces consider the town to be a strategic area that could block the flow of crucial supplies to al-Shabaab militants.
Allied forces have been aiming to take control of Bardhere for about a year and half. In August, Kenyan air strikes killed at least 18 suspected al-Shabaab members in Bardhere.
Al-Shabaab subsequently imposed strict security measures on the town's residents, such as night curfews and a ban on selling qat, cigarettes and tobacco. Militants also erected checkpoints on the outskirts of the town.
Somali president reiterates amnesty offer
Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud reiterated his call urging al-Shabaab fighters to surrender and take advantage of the government's amnesty programme.
"My government will fight for peace and we will set up a programme to rehabilitate, train and guide all militias that break away from this group that has ties with al-Qaeda," Mohamud told journalists at Aden Adde International Airport on January 3rd after returning from a visit to Sudan.
"We will guarantee individual job opportunities for these young people as a way to end this war and collect illegal weapons that are found in abundance among all segments of Somali society," he said.