NAIROBI, Kenya — A United Nations official has expressed concern about reports of civilian casualties from naval assaults on the Somali city of Kismayo. The port city is one of the last strongholds of the militant group al-Shabab, and securing Kismayo is a key objective for African Union [AU] forces fighting in Somalia.
U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, Mark Bowden, said in a statement Tuesday that fighting for control of the town of Kismayo “appears imminent," citing reports of naval gunfire and air strikes on the town.
He called for all parties involved to minimize the impact on civilians, and to allow humanitarian access.
AMISOM mission gathers steam
The statement did not specify which military was responsible for the assaults. The Kenyan Defense Forces [KDF] have been advancing toward Kismayo since entering the country to combat al-Shabab last October.
Their progress stalled around the town of Afmadow earlier this year, but the operation has regained momentum since the force was integrated into the African Union mission, known as AMISOM, in June.
An AMISOM spokesperson Tuesday would not confirm whether reports of air and naval assaults in Kismayo were part of an upcoming offensive.
Speaking by phone from Mogadishu, the head of the U.N. Office for Humanitarian Affairs [OCHA] in Somalia, Justin Brady, said the agency expects the fight for Kismayo to be intense.
“We have anticipated this one could be one of the larger battles and again, there's a large civilian population, there's a large IDP [Internally Displaced People] population and they are very likely to get caught up in that fighting,” he said.
Brady admits OCHA's information about the current humanitarian situation in Kismayo is, in his words, “pretty sketchy,” which is why they are calling for better access.
Battle begins to escalate
A civilian witness in Kismayo, who requested not to be named, told VOA that warships off the coast had been shelling targets in the city throughout the day Tuesday. He said militants have been returning fire from the shore.
He also said tensions are high in the city, and people are fleeing north to the town of Jamame.
A Kenyan military official said he could not comment on whether KDF ships were involved in any recent military activity around Kismayo.
Troops from Burundi, Kenya, and Uganda make up the bulk of soldiers in AMISOM. Ethiopian troops also are fighting against al-Shabab in Somalia, independent of the AU mission.
Map of Somalia