MOGADISHU, Somalia — Islamist fighters withdrew overnight from almost all of their bases in the famine-struck Somali capital, the most significant gain for the U.N.-backed government in four years.
The militants have denied many aid agencies access to their territory and their presence in the capital has complicated famine relief efforts. The government said humanitarian agencies now were welcome to come and distribute aid, but many still insist on serving only precooked rations at guarded kitchens.
"It is of major significance, but the war is not over yet," said Somali Defense Minister Hussein Arab Esse.
Tanks belonging to the African Union peacekeeping force surrounded the former militia base as gunfire crackled outside. Government soldiers lounged on smashed concrete pillars, staring as Somali and AU officials embraced.
Somalia has been a failed state for more than 20 years. Its lawless wastes are a haven for pirates and international terrorists and the conflict has caused two major famines. Hundreds of thousands starved to death in 1992 and the current emergency is believed to have cost tens of thousands already. It is set to worsen, partly because the Islamists, who call themselves al-Shabab, have banned many aid workers.
Al-Shabab controlled about a third of the capital until Saturday morning. They carried out public amputations and executions, and forcibly recruited children as fighters. They still hold most of southern Somalia.
Al-Shabab spokesman Ali Mohamed Rage told a local radio station that the forces had made a tactical withdrawal and would soon launch a counterattack.
"We shall fight the enemy wherever they are," he said.