Militant leaders and foot soldiers from the militant group al-Shabab are fleeing to hideouts in a mountainous region of northeastern Somalia after facing increasing military pressure around Somalia's capital, the prime minister said in an interview Wednesday.
The northern flight to the Galgala Mountains in the semiautonomous Somali region of Puntland comes after months of increasing pressure on al-Shabab from the militaries of Uganda, Burundi, Ethiopia and Kenya.
"They are weakened. They are now in tatters. Their fighters are now moving to Galgala Mountains, which is an area with a very difficult terrain," Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali told The Associated Press in an interview at the presidential palace. "Al-Shabab high officials are now also relocating to Puntland."
Galgala is an ancient mountain town in Puntland that serves as a key stronghold for militant fighters.
The increasing pressure on al-Shabab has seen the group cede Mogadishu to the power of African Union and Somali forces. The militants lost control of Baidoa, the country's third-largest town, in February.
The militant flight to northern Somalia coincides with renewed economic and social life in Mogadishu, where sports, business and the art are enjoying a comeback, despite a suicide bombing at the National Theater last week that killed at least 10, a bombing officials have said was aimed at Ali.
"I could see fumes and flames when the bomb went off," Ali said. "I was at the podium, looking at people. It was a shock. You cannot expect such things but it became real. There was a security lapse."
Ali said he does not fear a potential assassination in office, but that officials are working to avoid a repeat of such a close attack.
Militant fighters led by a former arms trader Mohamed Said Atom have been fighting the Puntland government from bases in the mountains for years. A 2010 report by the U.N. accused Atom of importing arms from Yemen and receiving consignments from Eritrea, including mortars, for delivery to al-Shabab forces in southern Somalia. Atom's supporters say he is fighting for more equitable distribution of revenues from oil exploration deals with foreign companies.
Puntland authorities have long blamed Atom's group and al-Shabab for carrying out bombings and assassinations in their region, but outright assaults on government positions have been rare.
Al-Shabab relies on several hundred foreign fighters _ some with experience in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. It joined al-Qaida earlier this year, and seeks to recruit new soldiers from Somali communities overseas.
U.S. and British officials in particular fear that young recruits from Somali communities in Minnesota or London could train in Somalia, and return to those countries to carry out attacks. Ali also conceded it was possible.
"Al-Shabab use kids from Minnesota, the U.K., Somalia to kick off war in other parts of the world, I am sure they are coming back to their adopted countries to create problems," he said.
Perhaps the best known American member of al-Shabab is Omar Hammami. The Alabama native recently issued a video tape saying he feared his life was in danger because of disagreements he had with other militant leaders.
"Al-Shabab and al-Qaida, just like the other mafia and gangsters, they eliminate each other and I am sure that Hammami has felt a threat," Ali said.
Asked if the Somali government would kill Hammami if it had the chance, the prime minister added: "If Hammami is involved in violent activities of course we don't have choice. But if he renounces violence and accepts peace then why are you killing him?" Ali said.
Hammami sits on the list of the FBI's most wanted fugitives.
Ali said he expects 2012 to be a peaceful year in Somalia, a year that sees the formation of a permanent government when the transitional federal government's authority expires in August.
"We already succeeded. We liberated the capital and many other towns from al-Shabab. After all Mogadishu is safe and secure," he said.