Kenya has renewed its long-stalled offensive against al Qaida’s affiliate in Somalia, just days after the Kenyan government blamed the Somali Islamists for an apparent terrorist attack in downtown Nairobi.
For the second day in a row, Kenyan naval forces on Wednesday bombarded the Somali seaport of Kismayo, a key stronghold of Somalia’s al Qaida-linked Shabab insurgents, while ground troops attacked Afmadhow, a major town that Kenya says it must capture before advancing by land against Kismayo. A Kenyan military spokesman tweeted Wednesday night that Afmadhow had fallen.
Port fees at Kismayo are the Shabab’s primary source of funds, and its capture by Kenyan troops would be a major blow to the organization, which once dominated southern Somalia. Shabab control has been steadily shrinking, however, under military pressure, not just from Kenya but also from Ethiopian forces conducting their own offensive, and from Ugandan and Burundian forces under the African Union that have pushed the Shabab from Mogadishu, the country’s capital, where an internationally-backed transitional government hangs onto control.
Kenya has now formally joined the African Union peacekeeping force as well, possibly opening its military campaign to more direct military assistance from the United States, which shares the regional governments’ desire to curb the Shabab’s power and recognizes the transitional government in Mogadishu.
An assault on Kismayo has been expected for months, since Kenyan troops first invaded Somalia in October after suspected Shabab guerrillas had conducted a spate of kidnappings near the Somali border, including one in which a British tourist was killed. But the offensive stalled, and for months little has been heard from the battlefield on what Kenyan troops were up to.
That changed Tuesday morning, when residents of Kismayo reported that the city had come under bombardment from the sea. Kenya later said that one of its ships had opened fire after it came under attack from Shabab forces onshore.
On Wednesday, the bombardment resumed, residents said, describing a chaotic scene as many attempted to flee the city.
"Day and night aircraft fly over us," said Mohamed, a resident reached by phone who asked that his full name not be divulged because of fear of Shabab retaliation. “People are afraid.”
The city’s Shabab-controlled radio station went off the air Wednesday afternoon, though it was unknown whether it had come under attack.
“Some residents have started to flee the city and are settling outside of town," said a local freelance journalist who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation.
There were conflicting reports about the ground assault on Afmadhow, which straddles the main road to Kismayo, 60 miles to the south.
Maj. Emmanuel Chirchir, a Kenyan military spokesman, used his Twitter account to announce that Kenyan forces had captured the town, which has been in Shabab hands since 2009, and that they were now focused on taking Kismayo.
But a spokesman for Ras Kamboni, a Somali militia fighting alongside Kenyan troops against Shabab, offered a different version of events.
"We have been fighting and shelling Afmadhow today,” said the spokesman, Abdinasir Serar. “Our plan was to take full control of the town today. For now, we settled at the outskirts of the town. We will launch another operation early in the morning."
Most Kismayo residents refuse to talk to the media for fear of backlash by Shabab, which rules the city ruthlessly, demanding adherence to strict ultra-conservative Islamic laws and taxing the shipments through the seaport.
It is unclear whether the timing of the assault on Kismayo was tied to a suspected Shabab attack in Nairobi on Monday that wounded 28 and blew the roof off a used-clothing bazaar in a busy pedestrian mall. The Kenyan government now believes the explosion was caused by a bomb, possibly using fertilizer. The U.S. Embassy on Wednesday told American residents in Kenya that Monday’s explosion was the third attack since Saturday, when, the embassy said, grenades had exploded at a refugee camp and a hotel elsewhere in Kenya.
Boswell and Yusuf are McClatchy special correspondents. Boswell’s reporting is underwritten in part by a grant from Humanity United, a California-based foundation that focuses on human rights issues.