Insurgents are gone but Mogadishu still struggles

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By Richard Lough

MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Under the arches of Mogadishu's ruined Catholic cathedral, 25-year-old Habiba Ahmed helped one of her five children urinate in a tin can.

A mortar shell killed Ahmed's husband three years ago. She lived in the port town of Merka, south of Mogadishu, until three months ago when hunger and the punishing rule of al Shabaab militant Islamists there drove the family to the capital.

Now al Shabaab fighters have retreated from Mogadishu itself after four years of battling government forces and foreign peacekeepers.

But memories of their rule and fears they may return still grip Ahmed and many others in the city, not least the thousands of refugees who have fled al Shabaab rule in the hinterland.

"There was no life under al Shabaab," Ahmed said, squatting below a bomb-blasted stone carving of Jesus and his disciples.

"There was no freedom to walk carefree, no freedom to work, no freedom to dress as we liked. Al Shabaab stole my son, to recruit him into their forces, but I got him back," the widow said.

While the insurgents' retreat from Mogadishu effectively handed full control of the city to the government for the first time since civil war broke out in 1991, the rebels still control huge chunks of southern and central Somalia.

Foreign Minister Mohamed Mohamud Haji Ibrahim, asked if the government might again lose the city, said: "No, we are in control of Mogadishu."

"But to recapture the whole country we need extra forces, extra equipment and we need the support of the international community," he told reporters at the presidential palace, a heavily guarded hilltop compound that overlooks the once grand Italian colonial facades of Mogadishu's seafront.

Ibrahim said al Shabaab's threat of guerrilla-style attacks could not be ignored.

He did not make clear whether he sought reinforcements to the 9,000-strong African peacekeeping force, seen as critical to the government's grip on Mogadishu, or to the national army.

Uganda, whose troops form the force's backbone, has offered an extra 2,000 soldiers but for now the peacekeepers have no mandate to take the battle beyond the capital.

Almost every building in the city carries the scars of two decades of fighting. Some lie in piles of rubble while bushes sprout out of the artillery-blasted facades of others.

REFUGEE CAMPS MUSHROOM

Al Shabaab's exit has, however, brought relative calm to Mogadishu and set its pulse beating again.

On the potholed road linking the airport with the city center, tea-shops, money transfer outlets and stores selling car

parts teem with life, while donkeys pulling tanks of water jockey for position with garishly decorated trucks.

But years of conflict and now a famine sweeping across the south of the country have swollen Mogadishu's population.

Filthy, makeshift camps of tarpaulin shacks that lack running water have mushroomed across the city after an influx of over 100,000 refugees in two months from across southern Somalia, where a devastating drought is biting hardest.

On a rare visit to Somalia, Antonio Guterres, head of the U.N. refugee agency, said aid groups were still unable to access many of the 3.7 million Somalis at risk of starvation.

"It's now clear that (relief efforts) are scaling up but I think it is also clear that the dimension of the problem is out of proportion with what it has been possible to do up until now," Guterres told Reuters.

(Editing by David Clarke and Angus MacSwan)