Kenyan troops were this morning still battling the Al-Qaeda-linked Somali militants in an attempt to capture the highly strategic town of Kismayu that has for long been the headquarters of Al-Shabaab militants. It is the last major stronghold held by the Somali fighters since they came into existence five years ago.
The Kenyan army which is fighting with other African soldiers from Uganda and Burundi was said to be using heavy artillery that was heard miles away. Occasionally Kenya air force jets swept low over the city as most residents kept indoors. Four Ugandan army helicopters sent a couple of months ago to bolster the AMISOM (African Mission for Somalia) group, never reached Somali after crashing in the Kenyan mountains before they could reach their destination. President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda has vowed to replace them soon.
By nightfall, it was not clear who was in control with residents still claiming the Al-Shabaab were still very much in control of the town. Residents said shelling had subsided after earlier fighting near a beach just outside Kismayu. They added that no Kenyan forces could be seen in the city centre, where shops and businesses were closed and some preachers called on their followers to join al Shabaab on the frontlines.
“Tension is high. It is getting dark and yet no group controls the town,” resident Ali Gelle said by telephone. “People are afraid shells will be fired and there’s no hope of getting any food,” he said. The loss of the southern port would deal a huge blow to Al-Shabaab as it is a lucrative source of revenue and a centre for operations over areas it has controlled in Somalia since 2007, but by nightfall.
Kenyan troops are said to have landed on Kismayu beaches overnight, but refrained from stampeding into the heavily booby-trapped city, while joint Somali government and Kenyan troops were approaching the town’s outpost from the eastern flank, and are reportedly about five kilometres out of the city. But a Kenyan army official conceded that an advance party of Somali government troops had made tactical entry into the city, and taken control of about seven technicals – pick-up trucks with machine guns mounted on theirs wells. “Parts of Kismayu has fallen, we are looking to capture the whole city by the end of the day,” army spokesman Major Emmanuel Chirchir said. Al-Shabaab, which formally merged with al Qaeda in February, has been steadily losing its footholds under sustained pressure from African Union peacekeeping forces (AMISOM) and Somali government troops for the past year.
While Kismayu’s recapture would go a long way towards stabilising Somalia, which has been largely lawless for the past 20 years, it may embolden the militants to resort to more guerrilla-style attacks. Kenyan military spokesman Col. Cyrus Oguna said Kenyan soldiers and Somali government troops had advanced on Kismayu from the north, south and from the sea. “We’re moving towards the main city,” Oguna told Reuters.
Residents reported fighting near the beach earlier on Friday, about 4 km (2.5 miles) outside the city, as military helicopters hovered overhead. Many streets were deserted. Some masked men looked on from windows and balconies and the militants appeared to be in control of at least some entrances into the city. Rukia Jelle, a mother of five, said she could hear “deafening shells” and jets flying overhead. Residents said Kenyan and Somali troops had advanced to a university campus just to the north of Kismayu and shells had rained down on the presidential palace, an al Shabaab base. “It’s a hilltop palace and no houses surround it. The AU’s ships have been shelling in that direction,” Gelle said. Oguna could not be immediately reached to confirm that account.
Al Shabaab, which counts foreign al Qaeda-trained fighters among its ranks, is seen as one of the biggest threats to stability in the east and Horn of Africa. It has received advice from al Qaeda’s leadership, counter-terrorism experts say.