Kenya’s military seized the Somali towns of Afmadow and Hayo as it prepared to capture the port city of Kismayo from al-Qaeda-linked militants, spokesman Emmanuel Chirchir said.
At least 17 suspected members of the al-Shabaab militia were killed in the attacks, Chirchir said in a statement on his Twitter account. Al-Shabaab denied it lost ground.
The Kenyan Defence Forces’ “focus is on Kismayo as other Amisom forces roll down southward,” Chirchir said. “Al-Shabaab’s reign in Kismayo will soon be interred.”
The capture of the two towns brings more territory under government control after African Union-backed Somali soldiers secured a route linking Afgoye, 29 kilometers (18 miles) northwest of Mogadishu, with the capital city last week. Rebels withdrew from Mogadishu in August following advances by the forces.
Kenya’s military began an incursion into southern Somalia in October to drive out al-Shabaab, which has waged a five-year insurgency against the United Nations-backed administration of President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed. Kenya began the assault to secure its borders after blaming the rebel group for the murder of a British tourist at a luxury resort and the abduction of at least four foreign holidaymakers and aid workers in Kenya.
The UN agreed in February to increase the number of African Union peacekeepers in Somalia to 17,731, from 12,000, absorbing the Kenyan troops, and increasing resources.
At least six al-Shabaab fighters were “neutralized” in the battles for Afmadow and Hayo yesterday, while 11 more were killed when “long-range naval guns” were used to attack a suspected militant camp in Kismayo, Chirchir said. Kismayo is a strategic target for the Kenyan forces because it is a key supply route for al-Shabaab and a source of the taxes the group collects.
“The so-called Kenyan troops are always dreaming to capture Afmadow but our mujahedeen forces chased them away several times and aborted their intention to capture it,” Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Mus’ab, an al-Shabaab spokesman, said yesterday on Radio Andulus, a broadcaster controlled by the militia.
To contact the reporter on this story: Sarah McGregor in Nairobi at firstname.lastname@example.org