UPDATE 3-Somali government declares Islamist rebellion defeated

Sat Aug 6, 2011 1:49pm GMT

* Al Qaeda-linked rebels abandon bases in Mogadishu

* Al Shabaab militants say their retreat only tactical

* Some say pullout may be driven by splits within al Shabaab

* Residents out in the streets; say too early to rejoice (Adds analyst)

By Mohamed Ahmed and Ibrahim Mohamed

MOGADISHU, Aug 6 (Reuters) - Somali President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed said on Saturday his military had defeated Islamist rebels battling to overthrow his Western-backed government after the al Shabaab group began withdrawing fighters from the capital Mogadishu.

Rejecting Ahmed's claim to have quashed al Shabaab's four-year insurgency, the militants' spokesman, Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage, said their retreat was tactical only and they were holding their positions elsewhere in the anarchic country.

A 9,000-strong African peacekeeping force and Somali government forces had been steadily wresting control of rubble-strewn Mogadishu from the militants this year. Al Shabaab's pullout followed a string of fierce gun battles late on Friday.

Somalia has been without effective central government since the fall of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre 20 years ago.   Continued...

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