* Military spokesman says parts of Kismayu captured
* Residents say fighting going on outside city
* Loss of Kismayu bruising, but not a knockout blow
* Militants seen resorting to al Qaeda-inspired tactics
By Abdi Sheikh
MOGADISHU, Sept 28 (Reuters) - Kenyan troops launched a pre-dawn attack on the Somali port city of Kismayu on Friday in an assault to drive the al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab militant group from its last major stronghold.
Fighting and shelling was taking place on the city’s beaches after a land and amphibious assault, city residents and rebels said.
The loss of the southern port would deal a huge blow to al Shabaab as it is a lucrative source of revenue and a centre for operations over areas it has controlled in south-central Somalia since 2007.
The group, which formally merged with al Qaeda in February, has been steadily losing its footholds under sustained pressure from African peacekeeping forces (AMISOM) and Somali government troops for the past year.
While Kismayu’s recapture would go a long way towards stabilising Somalia, which has lacked effective central government for the past 20 years, it may embolden the militants to resort to more guerrilla-style attacks.
Kenyan military spokesman Col. Cyrus Oguna said Kenyan soldiers and Somali government troops had advanced on Kismayu from the north, south and from the sea and was now in control of parts of the city.
“We’re moving towards the main city. Our surveillance aircraft are monitoring every event taking place on the ground,” Oguna told Reuters.
Oguna said there had been little resistance while Al Shabaab said it was still in Kismayu, the country’s second biggest city.
Residents reported fighting near the beach earlier on Friday, about 4 km (2.5 miles) outside the city, as military helicopters hovered overhead.
“We saw seven ships early in the morning and now their firing looks like lightening and thunder. Al Shabaab have gone towards the beach. The ships poured many AU troops on the beach,” Ismail Suglow told Reuters.
Locals said businesses were closed and many streets were deserted. Some masked men looked on from windows and balconies.
“We can hear deafening shells and the town looks dead. We don’t know where to go, the jets are now flying over,” said Rukia Jelle, who was watching the scene outside her home with her five children.
The Kenyan military spokesman predicted an easy takeover.
“For now, we’re not everywhere. We’ve taken a large part of it without resistance, I don’t see anything major happening,” he said.
Al Shabaab, which was driven out of the capital Mogadishu last August and is fighting African Union forces in other parts of the country, said it would not give up Kismayu easily.
“Going into Kismayu is not a piece of cake. We are still fighting them on the beach where they landed,” Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, al Shabaab’s spokesman for military operations, told Reuters on Friday.
“For us, this is just the beginning, our troops are spread everywhere.”
Abdirashid Hashi, an analyst with the International Crisis Group said the loss of Kisamyu would be a “huge psychological blow” and a “significant loss” for the militants.
“The die-hard members will continue with their destablisation strategy of targeted killings, suicide bombings and IEDs (roadside bombs),” Hashi told Reuters.
“The low-level footsoldiers will just see them as a losing proposition,” he said.
Hashi also said the loss of funding from local taxes would hurt them less as the group morphed into a more fluid guerrilla force. The rebels would have less need for finances to run urban areas and pay salaries, and would focus more on acquiring immediate supplies.
Al Shabaab’s radio station, Radio Andalus, was still airing live in Kismayu, urging residents to take their guns and join the ‘jihad’, Suglow said.
A woman named Halima said some residents who support the militants had joined them with guns at the frontline.
Hashi said the fighters, who have been in Kismayu for the last five years, would have prepared for an assault they knew was coming after African troops seized Mogadishu, Afmadow, Baidoa, Beledweyne, and Marka.
“The area around Kismayu is all forest and jungle and they knew this would come. I am sure they have some contingency plans and have sent supplies outside the city,” he said.
Kenya sent its troops into Somalia last October after the rebels were blamed for a series of raids on Kenyan soil targeting its security forces as well as Western tourists.
On Thursday, residents said planes had dropped leaflets on Kismayu warning civilians to evacuate within 24 hours.
The United Nations refugee agency said there had been a spike in residents fleeing the city on Thursday but no reports of large numbers fleeing on Friday, adding that there had been fighting close to both the main roads leading out of the city.
It said more than 13,000 people had fled Kismayu since the beginning of September after Kenyan forces began targeting al Shabaab’s positions in the city.