Reuters Africa

MARKA, Somalia (Reuters) – “Paradise lies under the shade of swords,” reads the Arabic inscription on an arch leading into the Somali port of Marka, abandoned last month by Islamist al Shabaab militants under pressure from advancing African Union peacekeepers and government troops.

Kenyan troop stand guard at the Garrisa airstrip near the Somali-Kenyan border October 18, 2011. REUTERS/Stringer

The inscription, along with a white column by the beach where al Shabaab held public executions, is one of the reminders of the al Qaeda-allied rebels’ four-year occupation of the coastal town, 90 km (55 miles) south of the capital Mogadishu.

A determined offensive by African Union (AMISOM) and Somali government forces has made large strides over the last year to oust al Shabaab fighters from their strongholds in south-central Somalia. On Friday, Kenyan troops attacked Kismayu, the rebels’ last major bastion.

For the first time since the early 1990s, there are hopes that the Horn of Africa nation, long regarded as the ultimate ‘failed state’, could be nearing the last stages of a vicious circle of violence.

But while the successes against al Shabaab are welcomed by Somalia’s government and its international backers, there are fears that even Kismayu’s capture may not deliver a knock-out blow to the combat-hardened group. Some experts think it will redeploy and hit back with guerrilla raids and urban bombings.

Marka’s residents seem generally happy that al Shabaab has gone. But they say night time grenade attacks still occur, indicating the militants, or at least their supporters, are still there. Police have not yet arrived, though masked special forces soldiers of the Somali army patrol some streets.

“The militants’ strategic goal in the longer run could be very simple – to exhaust AMISOM, have it stretched,” a Western security official based in Mogadishu told Reuters.

Somalia’s newly elected president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has yet to name a new prime minister and appoint top security aides, raising concerns that the country’s ever feuding militias and clans could take advantage of any power vacuums. Read more…