Kenyan and Somali government troops edged closer to a town in southern Somalia where al Qaeda-inspired rebels have grouped, hoping to strike a quick blow against them.
The al Shabaab rebels, blamed by Nairobi for several kidnappings of foreigners on Kenyan soil, pose a significant security threat to the Horn of Africa region and Nairobi launched an air-and-ground offensive against them a week ago.
The rebels have reinforced their defences in the town of Afmadow, a strategic transit point for goods trafficked illegally through the rebel-controlled Kismayu port, al Shabaab’s nerve centre for operations, Reuters reports.
Somalia’s Western-backed troops say the aim of the operation is to rid Kismayu of the militants, which if achieved, would wipe out their base for logistics and recruitment.
“We have so far captured Qoqani, just 120 km (75 miles) west of Kismayu, where we are heading to,” said General Yusuf Hussen Dhumal, commander of Somali government troops near Afmadow.
“Our troops in Taabto and Hayo have also moved near Afmadow and are just 7 km away. We wish in the coming two days to reach Afmadow … Kenyan convoys are also with us,” he told Reuters.
On Saturday, the Kenyan military said it had moved beyond Oddo and had launched an air strike on Munarani, 10 km away from Oddo, hitting an al Shabaab command centre.
Residents said convoys of armoured vehicles and trucks carrying weaponry, food supplies and tents were seen leaving four military camps in Isiolo in northern Kenya on Friday and heading towards the border.
Kenya says it has not encountered any resistance from the rebels and that the militants are on the run and getting weaker, but any attempt to take Afmadow, where the rebels have massed and dug trenches, could result in a significant ground battle.
US WARNS OF IMMINENT THREAT
Kenya is the latest of Somalia’s neighbours to intervene militarily in a country that has not had an effective government for the last 20 years. The militants have vowed to bring the “flames of war” into Kenya if Nairobi refuses to withdraw its troops.
The threat of reprisal prompted the U.S. embassy in Kenya to warn its citizens of a possible “imminent threat” in the country, with attacks possibly targeting prominent Kenyan facilities and places where foreigners tend to gather like malls and night clubs.
Kenyan police increased patrols on the country’s northern border with Somalia, to prevent al Shabaab rebels from escaping into the East African country.
“More patrol bases have been set up at Kolbio, Hulugho in Garissa and Amuma in Wajir. The deployment of … regular and administration police have been strengthened, the number of officers has been reinforced,” a police officer from Garissa told Reuters.
Kenya, East Africa’s biggest economy, has won wide support from neighbouring countries for its operation which it launched on Sunday after four Western women were kidnapped and whisked into Somalia, putting the country’s tourism industry at risk.