African Union and Somali troops appear ready to move into the skinny alleys of Mogadishu's largest market to oust the militants who control it in an operation that, if successful, could be the most visible win against militants in years.
Anticipating the brewing battle, traders in Bakara market are closing shop and moving out goods by wheelbarrow and donkey-powered carts. Al-Shabab militants are setting up new defensive positions, including digging trenches and placing snipers atop tall buildings.
The thousands of shoppers who crowd the market on a busy day are staying home, and traders are fearful of violent, high-dollar damage.
"The streets are empty, only bullets," said Ali Abdullahi, a businessman who stayed in the market to guard his stocks of sugar and maize flour. "Any movements are restricted to the fighters."
Bakara market is a top revenue stream for al-Shabab, which taxes the market's merchants. Bakara _ where anything from infant formula to flat-screen TVs are available _ is the lynchpin of Mogadishu commerce, making it valuable ground for both sides.
African Union and Somali troops have closed in on the market in recent days and now have well-staked positions on two sides. Defense officials are reluctant to turn the market into an all-out battlefield that would destroy millions of dollars worth of goods, though some type of assault appears imminent.
"We call on al-Shabab fighters to withdraw from the market peacefully and not to use Somali properties as a shield," Somalia Defense Minister Abdulhakim Mohamoud Haji Faqi told The Associated Press. "But if they refuse to do so we will evict them by force."
The African Union, the Somali government and pro-government militias launched an offensive against militants earlier this year, making notable gains in territory. The government once controlled only a couple square miles (kilometers) near Mogadishu's seaside airport. African Union officials say they now control half the city.
Bakara has been the site of hundreds of battles in recent years. Located right next to the government-controlled area, militants fire rocket propelled grenades into the city's safe zone from the market's alleyways, attacks that in years past earned a return round of fire that killed scores of civilians.
"We ask al-Shabab to leave it and the government to stop firing because Somalis have huge properties inside the market," said Ali Osoble Nur, who, like many Mogadishu residents kept off the market in recent days.
The lifeline of Mogadishu, Bakara sells state-of-the-art electronics and fake medicine and fake passports, which both flourish due to the lack of government regulation. High-end mobile phones and TVs are available. Cell phone bills are paid here. Foreign currency is exchanged.
And despite al-Shabab's anti-American view, the dollar is the preferred currency.
But today Bakara lies nearly empty, with many shops closed and few customers. Mohamed Khalif, who sells cosmetics at two shops in the market, used a wheelbarrow to move his goods to the government-controlled area. He said the market's businessmen are caught in the middle of Somalia's larger struggle.
"We call on both sides to stop the war and not interrupt our businesses," said Khalif, who said he pays $40 in taxes to al-Shabab every month. "But it is unfortunate that you can't tell any of them to stop the attack."
Because of their deep pockets, Bakara's traders are a powerful lobbying force. They can influence decisions of the warring sides and buy loyalty. In 2006, traders were the main financiers of an umbrella Islamist group _ the Islamic Courts Union _ which ruled the capital and much of the country's south and central regions for six months.
In the 1970s, Bakara was an open air market that mostly sold charcoal, firewood and foodstuffs. Today it sprawls over several square kilometers (miles), and moves millions of dollars worth of goods every month.
Maj. Gen. Nathan Mugisha, the commander of the African Union forces in Mogadishu, said it is "high time" the militants abandon the market. He said any operation into Bakara will be tricky, because AU forces do not want to damage property.
But "if they continue and resist then, we have no alternative but to consider other options, including minimum force to flush them out," Mugisha said.
Faqi, the defense minister, said that Bakara provides al-Shabab both financing and a defensive positions. He is eager to see both taken away.
"If al-Shabab loses the market, they will be like a fish out of water," he said. "It will be hard for them to survive in Mogadishu."
Muhumed contributed from Nairobi, Kenya.