— Kenya’s Defense Force says its troops took control of parts of the Somali port city of Kismayo Friday in a pre-dawn attack from the land, air and sea. The long-awaited operation is targeting the last major stronghold of the al-Qaida-linked militant group al-Shabab.
Kenyan Defense Forces (KDF) launched the assault around 2:00 am local time from the Kismayo coast in coordination with Somali forces and the African Union peacekeeping force known as AMISOM.
KDF spokesman Colonel Cyrus Oguna says Kenyan soldiers secured the northern part of the town with little resistance from al-Shabab. “Since our troops got there early in the morning there have been no ground engagements -- serious ones -- there have been air strikes in key locations of the city to target strategic al-Shabab logistic bases,” he said.
Oguna said the militants still control the southern sector of the city, but he expects their fighters to disperse as troops close in. “We expect some of the members of al-Shabab to disappear into the local communities -- the junior commanders -- the key leaders will probably just leave and flee to other parts,” he added.
Two witnesses say the militants have mounted machine guns on the town's tallest buildings.
The Somali militia group Raskamboni is fighting on the side of the pro-government forces. The group's leader, Ahmed Madobe, told VOA that "we hope to take over the city within the coming hours."
He noted, however, that al-Shabab relied economically on Kismayo and may fight to prolong its control.
Al-Shabab said in a series of Twitter messages Friday that it remained in control of Kismayo and had destroyed three Kenyan armored personnel carriers.
A witness in Kismayo said al-Shabab clerics urged residents during Friday sermons to stay and fight against the incoming forces.
He also said Kenyan ships have been shelling the city from the sea and that some civilians have been injured in the fighting.
The United Nations refugee agency reported Friday that about 12,000 people left Kismayo in the past month, in some cases to avoid forced recruitment by al-Shabab.
KDF spokesman Oguna said a humanitarian corridor is being provided for civilians who choose to flee, but some residents say the roads have been blocked.
Kenya has been vowing to take control of Kismayo since it first sent troops into neighboring Somalia in October last year, following a spate of cross-border attacks blamed on Somali militants.
Al-Shabab has used the town’s seaport to bring in weapons and other supplies to support their battle against the Somali government.
Kenyan forces were incorporated into the AMISOM peacekeeping mission in June, though Kenyan naval forces continue to operate independently.