Islamist militants in Somalia say they have withdrawn from their southern stronghold of Kismayo, following an African Union (AU) military attack.
Kenyan and Somali forces launched a beach assault on al-Shabab’s last major bastion on Friday but encountered fierce resistance.
A Somali commander told the BBC that AU forces were not yet in the city.
Kenyan troops are part of a force trying to wrest control of the country for the new UN-backed president.
Al-Shabab spokesman Ali Mohamud Rage told AFP news agency: “The military command of Shabab mujahideen ordered a tactical retreat at midnight.”
Speaking to Reuters, the same spokesman confirmed the withdrawal, but added: “The enemies have not yet entered the town. Let them enter Kismayo, which will soon turn into a battlefield.”
Al-Shabab commander Sheikh Mohamed Abu-Fatma confirmed the withdrawal orders to AFP: “We got orders from our superiors to withdraw from the city… this is part of broader military tactics we have set for the enemy.”
Kenyan military spokesman Col Cyrus Oguna said the AU forces were in control of the northern parts of the city and were preparing to move to southern districts.
Kenya’s Defence Minister Yusuf Haji told the BBC that al-Shabab had not yet vacated the area and it would “not be difficult for people who know the area well to sneak out without being detected”.
But he said the people of Kismayo were “very happy and were welcoming Kenyan and Somali troops with both arms”.
Kenya’s Deputy Prime Minister Musalia Mudavadi said the Islamist withdrawal would “cut the lifeline of al-Shabab”.
He said: “This is very important because Kismayo has been the port that al-Shabab have been using to get in the ammunition. It has been the port that has been the centre of the piracy menace that we have been experiencing along that coastline for quite some time.”
On its Twitter account, the Islamists said their five-year administration in Kismayo had now shut its doors.
The al-Shabab-controlled radio station, Radio Andalus, is reported to be off air.
The BBC’s Somalia Service has spoken to residents of Kismayo who confirmed that al-Shabab fighters had left during the night and the city was now calm.
One resident, Aweys, said the police station and main al-Shabab offices were closed, with some teenagers engaged in looting.
“But no-one is going near al-Shabab military bases, because they might be mined,” Aweys said.
BBC World Service Africa editor
With AU forces advancing into Kismayo, the elements of a long-term Kenyan strategic plan – the Jubaland project – are almost in place.
It has been an open secret that Kenya wishes to see a buffer zone established just over its border inside Somalia. The scheme has the backing of Kenyan Somalis, including the Kenyan defence minister and other members of the Ogaden clan. But one major obstacle has stood in the way of Jubaland – Ethiopian opposition. The Ethiopians had been fighting an Ogadeni rebel movement, the ONLF, since the mid-1980s.
Addis Ababa was totally against Jubaland if it allowed the ONLF a rear base from which to attack Ethiopia. So earlier this month the Kenyan defence minister brokered a deal between the rebels and Ethiopia. This removed the last obstacle to the project and underpins the current Kismayo offensive.
There is only one remaining problem: the people of Kismayo are not Ogadeni and this explains why some local people supported al-Shabab. Dealing with their concerns will be important if Jubaland is to become a success.
A spokesman for the Kenyan military told the BBC he feared the withdrawal might be a trap, so at present no-one is in control of Kismayo, says the BBC’s Gabriel Gatehouse in Nairobi. Read more…