African forces pushed al-Qaeda-linked militants from some positions in Somalia’s coastal city of Kismayo and are moving to seize the main port from rebel control, Kenyan army spokesman Cyrus Oguna said.
Kenyan and Somali troops entered the city through sea and land borders early this morning, facing little resistance from al-Shabaab fighters, Oguna said today in a phone interview. An operation to take the harbor began earlier this week, he said.
“They are in control of parts of Kismayo,” Oguna said. “It’s a big city and they can’t be everywhere in such a short period of time. The port is an area that we’re going to get to.”
Kismayo is a strategic target for forces because it’s a key supply route for al-Shabaab, an affiliate of al-Qaeda, and a source of taxes the group collects, according to the United Nations. Income from Somali ports has generated as much as $50 million a year for al-Shabaab from illegal trading, the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia said in a report last year.
Al-Shabaab said in a statement on its Twitter account that Kismayo “remains firmly in the hands of the mujahedeen” after its fighters thwarted a seaborne attack by Kenyan forces.
Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki this week described Kismayo as al-Shabaab’s last major bastion in the Horn of African nation. Kibaki ordered Kenyan forces into southern Somalia last October following the abduction of aid workers and tourists, and the murder of a British holidaymaker in Kenya.
The advance into Kismayo will cut off an access point for weapons and ammunition, Mehari Taddele Maru, an independent security adviser to the African Union, said today in a phone interview.
“As a military force al-Shabaab has diminished, even though its ideology still has a following,” he said by phone from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. The authorities should be able to maintain territorial gains by creating government-backed administrations capable of delivering basic services, he said.
One of the biggest security threats posed by al-Shabaab is that it may continue coordinating attacks, including suicide bombings and assassination attempts, he said.
“Al-Shabaab offered some stability and service delivery, so the government and Amisom must be able to galvanize support through the administration of services,” Mehari said. “They must also be able to confront resistance in the form of attacks such as hit-and-runs and suicide bombing attacks.”
There wasn’t a “significant” number of casualties in the clashes in Kismayo, Oguna said. More than 12,000 people have left areas in and around the city, fleeing air and naval bombardments between Sept. 1 to Sept. 26, the Nairobi-based UN refugee agency said today in an e-mailed statement.
Soldiers from Uganda, Burundi and Djibouti are also participating in the African Union Mission in Somalia, a peacekeeping force known as Amisom, while Ethiopian troops are operating independently alongside Somali government soldiers. Al-Shabaab has been driven from the capital, Mogadishu, and lost control of several other bases over the past year as the international community intensified efforts to support a newly elected government.
Somali lawmakers elected Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud as president on Sept. 10, marking the 16th attempt to establish an effective central government since the ouster of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. Previous administrations have failed to stem clan-based fighting, rid the country of Islamist insurgents and halt sea piracy off the country’s coast.
Kenyan Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka urged foreign donors to help Somalia rebuild its economy as security improves.
The capture of Kismayo “is the first block toward the reconstruction of Somalia,” Musyoka told reporters today in the western town of Kuria. “The international community must provide the necessary resources that will accelerate resettlement of the displaced citizens and provision of basic infrastructure and services.”