NAIROBI — The Somali militant group al-Shabab says it has withdrawn from its last major stronghold in southern Somalia, following a military strike led by Kenyan armed forces. The militant group says its retreat from Kismayo is a tactical decision and warns that they will continue to fight in the city.
Residents in Kismayo say al-Shabab fighters left the city early Saturday a day after Kenya launched a major attack targeting the militants from the land, air and sea.
An al-Shabab spokesman said the group’s commanders had ordered the tactical withdraw from the city. A message from a militant-linked Twitter account warned of more fighting, saying Kismayo will be “transformed from a peaceful city… into a battle-zone.”
Kenyan forces, which are part of the African Union peacekeeping mission known as AMISOM, claim to be in control of some areas in the north of the city.
Residents say the exit of al-Shabab has left a security vacuum in the south, and reported seeing looting of homes and offices.
Kenyan military spokesman Colonel Cyrus Oguna says soldiers are preparing to move into other parts of the town to confirm whether any al-Shabab remnants have stayed behind.
“In the south, now that they’re getting into the south, we’ll be able to determine that when they get there. But information that is trickling in from unconfirmed quarters is that al-Shabab rolled down their tents yesterday in the night and part of today in the morning,” said Oguna.
Somali National Army Commander Abdullahi Olow said Somali and African Union forces are still closing in on
Kismayo from the north and plan to full control over security in the city.
He told VOA that his forces were attacked by some al-Shabab fighters Saturday outside Kismayo.
"We encountered al-Shabab in two small villages on our way to Kismayo, and we crushed them," he said. "They are using young fighters who they are stationing on the roads."
Al-Shabab has been weakened as a military and political force since being driven out of the Somali capital Mogadishu by African Union forces last year. Since then, the group has relied on the Kismayo seaport as a source of revenue and supplies.
Kenyan spokesman Oguna says part of AMISOM’s military objective is to destroy these supply lines to further weaken the group’s capabilities.
"Once their logistic bases have been taken out, their ammunition dumps have been hit and destroyed and the seaport is no longer in their control, it might be very hard to sustain," he said.
Kenyan forces first entered southern Somalia in October last year after a series of cross-border kidnappings that Kenya blamed on Somali militants.
The forces were integrated into the AMISOM peacekeeping mission in June.