Kenyan troops have invaded the Somalian port city of Kismayo as part of an African Union military effort to drive the radical Islamic group al-Shabab from its last stronghold in the war-torn country.
Kenyan forces came ashore just before dawn in an operation that has roughly been a year in the making since their government first declared war on the terrorist group with ties to al-Qaida. Other African Union forces were traveling overland to link up with the Kenyan forces.
Col. Cyrus Oguna, the Kenyan military’s top spokesman, said the surprise attack met minimal resistance, but al-Shabab denied that the city had fallen and insisted that the fighting was ongoing.
Residents in Kismayo contacted by The Associated Press confirmed that Kenyan troops had taken control of the port, but not the entire city.
“Al-Shabab fighters are on the streets and heading toward the front line in speeding cars,” resident Mohamed Haji told The Associated Press. “Their radio is still on the air and reporting the war.”
Haji said that helicopters were hitting targets in the town in southeastern Somalia.
A U.S. military spokesman, Lt. Cdr. Dave Hecht, said the U.S. Africa Command, known as AFRICOM, was closely monitoring the situation but that “we are not participating in Kenya’s military activities in the region.”
An al-Shabab spokesman said on Twitter that the militants still control Kismayo.
“The enemy forces have launched a desperate attack on Kismayo this morning and the mujahedeen forces are resisting their attacks,” Sheikh Abdiaziz Abu-Musab said over the militants’ radio station in Kismayo.
Oguna said the assault is part of a four-prong attack involving Kenyan forces currently in villages outside Kismayo. The amphibious assault landed between 10:30 p.m. Thursday and 2 a.m. Friday local time, he said.
The United Nations-backed African Union troops pushed al-Shabab out of Mogadishu in August 2011, ending four years of control of the capital by the fighters. The Ugandan and Burundian troops that make up the bulk of the African Union force in Mogadishu have slowly been taking control of towns outside of Mogadishu.
The expanding control by AU troops sent al-Shabab fighters fleeing south toward Kismayo, north to other regions of Somalia and across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen, according to American and African Union officials.
Al-Shabab still holds sway across many small, poor villages throughout southern Somalia, but the loss of Kismayo would be significant because the militants needed the money they raised there by taxing goods coming into its port.
Kenyan troops first entered neighboring Somalia last October after a string of kidnappings inside their country, including of Westerners in and around the beach resort town of Lamu.
The Kenyan government has vowed to establish a buffer zone in southern Somalia.
Kenyan forces have been bogged down by rain and poor roads for months, but have made headway towards Kismayo in recent weeks.
The commander of the African Union troops, Lt. Gen. Andrew Gutti, said that more soldiers were headed to Kismayo to reinforce those that stormed ashore. He said the aim is to “liberate the people of Kismayo to enable them to lead their lives in peace, stability and security. Operations are ongoing to neutralize targets in Kismayo.”
Somalia has been one of the most lawless lands in the world with no effective government for more than 20 years.
The repeated civil wars and chaos has allowed the flourishing of militia armies, extremist rebels and piracy.