African Union-backed Somali government forces advanced to within 50 kilometers (31 miles) of the port city of Kismayo, one of the last bastions of al-Qaeda-linked militants, an army official said.
Fighting in the villages of Aglibah, Janaay, Abdulle and Birta Dheer yesterday left at least 60 al-Shabaab fighters dead, General Ismail Sahardiid, commander of forces in the Lower Jubba region, said on state-run Radio Mogadishu today.
The army plans to approach Kismayo “carefully” and the port city may be seized from the Islamist al-Shabaab militia “within a week,” he said.
Kismayo is a strategic target for government forces because it is a key supply route for al-Shabaab and a source of taxes the group collects, according to the United Nations. The Somali army, aided by African Union peacekeepers, along with Ethiopian soldiers, have been gaining territory from al-Shabaab since seizing the capital, Mogadishu, in August 2011. Three days ago, the troops captured the port of Marka, 110 kilometers south of Mogadishu.
Al-Shabaab said it killed “dozens” of Somali forces in yesterday’s fighting, which took place in villages that are situated on the road between the town of Afmadow and Kismayo.
Residents of Kismayo are concerned that an attack by Somali government forces may also result in heavy casualties, said Ibrahim Abdu Sheikh, a local businessman.
“Heavily armed al-Shabaab forces are driving around the city in their battle wagons, while many armored vehicles have been placed on the outskirts of the city,” he said in a phone interview today.
Somali Defense Minister Hussein Arab Isse said the army would try to minimize casualties.
“Since we know that many people reside inside Kismayo, we are ensuring that there will be no big loss of civilian lives,” Isse told reporters today in Mogadishu.
Al-Shabaab has led an insurgency against Somalia’s government since at least 2006, and still controls parts of territory in southern and central regions.
Somalia is in the process of creating its 16th national government in 21 years. On Aug. 28, the country’s nine-day-old legislature elected a new speaker. Today, an electoral committee was formed to organize the election of a new president.