MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Rebels linked to al Qaeda mounted weapons on rooftops, dug trenches and armed students to defend the southern Somali port of Kismayu from an expected onslaught by Kenya’s military.
Kenya’s army has warned Somalis to stay away from al Shabaab bases in 10 southern towns due to “imminent strikes”, but nearly three weeks into their cross-border operation, Kenyan and Somali government troops are bogged down by heavy rains and thick mud.
Kenya issued the warning after it received intelligence reports that consignments of weapons had reached al Shabaab militants in the rebel-controlled town of Baidoa.
“They have put their weapons over us. Every high house in the city is a defence for al Shabaab,” said Fatuma Ali, a resident in Kismayu who lives next to the rebels’ military base.
“Since Kenya mentioned the 10 towns, al Shabaab have been readying all their weapons and small arms,” she said.
Spurred on by a wave of kidnappings and attacks on its soil, Kenya is the latest country to be drawn into the conflict in Somalia, which has had no effective government for two decades.
While Kenya has east Africa’s biggest economy, some analysts say it lacks the military muscle to deal a mortal blow to al Shabaab, whose ultimate aim is to impose its own strict version of Sharia law across the Horn of Africa country.
Other residents in Kismayu, al Shabaab’s nerve centre, the militants were digging trenches in the city and handing out weapons to some students to confront the Kenyans.
“They gave arms to people and they’re telling them to stay and defend the country from foreigners,” said resident Amina Mahmoud in Kismayu. “They said yesterday evening: ‘Everyone of you who dies here is a mujahid and will enter paradise’.”
There were no reports on Thursday of any air raids since Kenya sent out its warning two days ago. But fearful of a confrontation, Somalis were trying to flee towns, only to be stopped by militants who want them to stay and fight.
“They’ve refused to let us out, and we don’t have any money to leave. Some people are trying to flee but the heavy rain is not giving them a chance,” said Ali.
On Wednesday residents in the strategic town of Afmadow said al Shabaab had also ordered them to stay at home.
Afmadow is a strategic transit point for contraband smuggled through Kismayu port and is seen as a likely flashpoint for a confrontation between Kenyan forces and al Shabaab militants.
Kenyan and Somali government troops, in addition to militia nominally allied to the Somalia’s Western-backed government, have set up forward positions close to Afmadow.