MOGADISHU (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 militants from their last major stronghold.
Residents said they could still hear shelling coming from the beach just outside Kismayu but that no Kenyan forces could be seen in the city centre where some imams called on their followers to join al Shabaab on the frontlines.
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 been largely lawless for the past 20 years, it may embolden the militants to retreat to the hinterlands and 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.
“We’re moving towards the main city. Our surveillance aircraft are monitoring every event taking place on the ground,” Oguna told Reuters.
Residents reported fighting near the beach earlier on Friday, about 4 km (2.5 miles) outside the city, as military helicopters hovered overhead.
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.
Al Shabaab, which counts foreign al Qaeda-trained fighters among its ranks, is seen as one of the biggest threats to stability in the east and Horn of Africa. It has received advice from al Qaeda’s leadership, counter-terrorism experts say.
The group flourished in south-central Somalia in the wake of an unpopular Ethiopian incursion in late 2006 to rout another Islamist administration, installing order and endearing itself to large pockets of the population.
But their draconian measures, including amputations and beheadings, as well as the decision to block international aid during the famine last summer, cost them support.
Western nations have for years poured money into stabilising Somalia, unnerved by a rising tide of Islamic militancy.
Those efforts seem to have paid dividends in the past year.
An internationally-funded peacekeeping force has driven the militants out of key urban strongholds, an EU naval force is clamping down on piracy, and a new president was elected in a largely corrupt-free process earlier this month.
There have also been targeted drone strikes against senior militant commanders. Kenya deployed troops inside Somalia last October, blaming the militants for attacks on Kenyan soil.
The Kenyan military spokesman predicted an easy takeover.
“For now, we’re not everywhere. We’ve taken a large part of it without resistance,” he said.
Al Shabaab, however, said it would not surrender Kismayu.
“Going into Kismayu is not a piece of cake. For us, this is just the beginning, our troops are spread everywhere,” Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, al Shabaab’s spokesman for military operations, told Reuters on Friday.
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 destabilisation 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.
Al Shabaab’s radio station, Radio Andalus, was still airing live in Kismayu, urging residents to take their guns and join the ‘jihad’, Ismail Suglow, a Kismayu resident, said.
Yunis Osman, who attended Friday prayers at Kismayu’s Dabaqeyn mosque, said the preacher urged people to join al Shabaab.
“The imam said mujahideen and civilians should go to the frontlines near the beach to fight. Many nodded their heads in affirmation,” he said.
A woman named Halima said some residents who support the militants had already 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.
“I am sure they have some contingency plans and have sent supplies outside the city,” he said.
The fallout from Kismayu’s eventual capture is far from clear. The city is home to rival clans who will be jockeying for power, especially over control of the port due to lucrative tax revenues.
The U.N. refugee agency said there had been a spike in residents fleeing the city on Thursday. More than 13,000 people have fled Kismayu since the beginning of September after Kenyan forces began targeting al Shabaab’s positions in the city.