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AU Claims Defeat of al-Shabab in Mogadishu

Current African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) Force Commander Major General Fred Mugisha, speaks to the Somali media at the mission's headquarters in the capital Mogadishu in this handout photo taken April 26, 2012.

The African Union military force in Somalia has declared victory over al-Qaida-linked rebels in Mogadishu.

Predicting that the insurgents will soon be crushed nationwide, senior AMISOM commander General Fred Mugisha declared "All of Mogadishu is now liberated by Somalia Defense Forces by forces supported by AMISOM."

General Fred Mugisha said fighters of the Islamist extremist group al-Shabab have been expelled from every section of the Somali capital.

A year ago, al-Shabab controlled virtually all of this city of 1.5 million people. The western-backed Transitional Federal Government held a tiny scrap of land surrounding the presidential compound.

But in an 11-month urban guerrilla warfare campaign, the 10,000-strong AMISOM force of mostly Ugandan and Burundian troops systematically cleared out the extremists. Over the past few weeks, al-Shabab fighters have fled their last strongholds on the outskirts of town.

Al-Shabab spokesmen have called the retreat a “strategic withdrawal,” but General Mugisha says the pullout marks a significant defeat for the rebels.

"There are indicators that show defeat of a group, whether al-Shabab or any other group. One, they lose territory. And they have lost territory. Two, when you see enemies of that fighting force beginning to report to government, that's a weakness," the general noted. "It means the balance is changing, and we are beginning to see some of them reporting to the government side."

Reporters who toured the capital over the past two days saw signs of a return to normal after years of al-Shabab control.

The sprawling Bakara Market that was badly damaged in months of fighting last year is once again bustling with commercial activity. Streets are crowded with cars, and a construction boom is underway throughout the city as crumbling buildings are repaired.

AMISOM officials cautioned, however, that al-Shabab remains a dangerous force, and can stage hit-and-run strikes from the rural areas where it has fled. Gunfire could be heard echoing through the city after dark, and there are daily reports of explosions and grenade attacks.

Less than a month ago, a female suicide bomber struck during ceremonies at the newly-rebuilt national theater, killing two of the country's top sports officials.

Nevertheless, General Mugisha suggests that the extremists are rapidly losing control nationwide, even in the traditional rural strongholds to which they have retreated.

"There are still thousands out there supported by foreign fighters and jihadists, but we think at this pace, if we continue, it will not be long before we see the end of al-Shabab," he said.

With al-Shabab in retreat, AMISOM forces are busy consolidating their control well outside the city limits. Troops are constructing a barrier in the desert outside town to prevent the easy movement of al-Shabab forces.

AMISOM officials say the emphasis is now shifting to building up Mogadishu's unarmed and badly understaffed police forces.

As the city returns to normal, police units from other African countries are being dispatched to train and equip a professional Somali force that can restore order after more than two decades of anarchy.