Somali militants al-Shabab 'leaving' Kismayo stronghold

Peacekeepers from the African Union Mission in Somalia  patrol after capturing the Elmaan seaport from al Shabab insurgents September 4, 2012 African Union forces have been supporting the Somali government

Residents in the Somali city of Kismayo have told the BBC that fighters from the Islamist group al-Shabab are leaving their stronghold in the port.

Kismayo is the group's main base in its fight against the Somali government, which has been converging on the town with African Union (AU) soldiers.

A Somali government army general told the BBC that his forces were intending to take the port, but did not say when.

Meanwhile, the UN refugee agency has reported a spike in residents fleeing.

The UN body says the numbers leaving the city are up from just a few dozen on recent days to more than 1,000 a day now. The UN says people fear some sort of military activity in or around the port.

African Union troops have been slowly advancing towards Kismayo for months.

Local residents say militants have also been leaving on buses and trucks, taking heavy equipment with them.

But al-Shabab denies the reports, saying they have fought off AU forces.

Appeal for calm

Somali army General Ismail Sahareed, who said he was speaking from a position about 60km (37 miles) outside Kismayo, told the BBC Somali Service that al-Shabab had left the port and that his troops were on the way there.

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"In the last battles [on Saturday and Monday] we defeated al-Shabab's defence forces and they ran away and we are chasing their remnants."

The general appealed for the people of Kismayo to be calm and promised the Somali government army would bring all areas in the region under government control in the near future.

"We will safeguard the public's security and their possessions," he said.

He warned that al-Shabab had left behind guns, distributed amongst the population. He appealed to residents not to use them, saying that his troops would collect them.

However, Muhammad Usman Arus, a spokesman for the al-Qaeda-affiliated group, told the BBC that al-Shabab had killed around 100 Kenyan and Somali troops and pushed them back from Kismayo.

"We are in Kismayo - this is a propaganda war. The Kenyan and Somali forces have already broken off and gone back to their positions," he said.

Analysts say that losing their strategic stronghold would be a major blow to al-Shabab, although Mr Arus said the militants would fight on regardless.

The BBC's international development correspondent Mark Doyle says if Somali government forces do move on Kismayo it will be largely thanks to their allies in the Africa Union force - the Kenyans operating around Kismayo and Ugandan troop operating to the north of the city.

The United States supports the African Union forces operating against the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabab in Somalia - officially with logistics but also sometimes also with drone strikes.

A navy spokesman in Washington confirmed there is a US warship off the coast of Kismayo but said it was on routine operations.

The spokesman said he had no information about whether the ship intended to dock in Kismayo or not.

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