Mogadishu: Islamist militants fighting to topple Somalia`s Western-backed government were abandoning their bases in the capital Mogadishu on Saturday, a rebel spokesman and the government said.
African peacekeepers and Somali government forces have been steadily wresting control of the rubble-strewn capital from the militants this year.
A spokesman for the peacekeeping force, known as AMISOM, said that the rebels began to pull out of Mogadishu shortly after a string of fierce gunbattles late Friday.
Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage, spokesman for the al Qaeda-affiliated al Shabaab movement, told a local radio station the unprecedented retreat that started late Friday was tactical and that the rebels would hold their positions elsewhere.
"We have abandoned Mogadishu but we remain in other towns," Rage said on the al Shabaab-run Andalus radio station.
Al Shabaab has never previously entirely abandoned Mogadishu during the course of a four-year insurgency that has killed tens of thousands of people.
"We aren`t leaving you, but we have changed our tactics. Every one of you will feel the change in every corner and every street in Mogadishu. We will defend you and continue the fighting," Rage said.
The Horn of Africa country has been without effective central government since the fall of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre 20 years ago.
Government spokesman Abdirahman Omar Osman said the rebel pullout from Mogadishu was a "golden day" for Somalia.
"For the last (four) years Mogadishu has experienced atrocities at the hands of terrorists. But today they are out," Osman said.
Government forces have begun deploying cautiously into the pockets of the city previously under al Shabaab control, Osman said. He urged Somalis who had fled their homes to return, promising the military would spare no effort in securing the areas.
President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed and Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali were expected to hold a news briefing later on Saturday morning.
Witnesses said convoys of al Shabaab technicals -- open-top 4x4s mounted with machine guns -- headed south from Mogadishu toward the al Shabaab-controlled town of Baidoa, 250 km (150 miles) southwest of the capital.
"I saw 50 armed al Shabaab vehicles heading toward Baidoa shortly after morning prayers," Aweys Sharif said by telephone from the town of Afgoye, 30 km south of Mogadishu.