NAIROBI, June 8 (Xinhua)
The Kenya Defense Force (KDF) is planning on how to capture the strategic port city of Kismayu in Somalia, often regarded as the ultimate prize in the war after eight month of military advance into roughly over 95,000 km of territory into the Horn of Africa nation.
Kismayu, Somalia’s third largest city, is considered the hub of the militant group, Al-Shabaab, which formally merged with the dreaded global terror network, the Al-Qaida, after several years of pledging loyalty and ideological similarities.
On Thursday, the Kenyan soldiers backed by Somali forces carried out airstrikes in Kismayo in an attempt to force Al- Shabaab out of the port city.
Residents told Xinhua on Friday that the airstrikes hit three districts of Baadeera and Kismayo.Reports also said Bulohaji, Sadeh Lugood and Santaro districts were also hit by heavy airstrikes on Thursday.
KDF Operations Information Officer Colonel Cyrus Oguna confirmed the development, saying the allied forces struck the city of Kismayu by helicopters, but could not provide more details as they were awaiting damage assessment report later on Friday.
“Yes we carried out airstrikes in Kismayo on Thursday and we are waiting for the damage assessment report later in the day. Right now we are in the vicinity of Biibi which is a small town about 35 km from Afmadow,” Oguna told Xinhua on Friday.
He said the influence of Al-Shabaab in the Biibi town has come under threat as some of the fighters have deserted the town for fear of being either killed or arrested.
“We are not physically sitting in the Biibi town but we have surrounded it. We plan to take it over soon and then move on,” Oguna said.
But Al-Shabaab has reportedly reacted by mounting resistance on some key roads in the port city. They are barricading the city and thus block residents from entering or leaving Kismayo in a bid to defend its military supply corridors and keep its hold on some areas.
There have been no reports on the number of casualties yet, but Kismayo residents suggest thatthe size of the airstrikes could result in many civilian casualties.
The KDF, which officially joined the African Union Peacekeeping Mission (AMISOM) on June 2 after the signing of the agreement with the AU, is using naval warships which are patrolling the coast off Kismayu targeting militant camps and bases in the economic hub.
Sources said several fighters of the Al-Qaida allied group were killed during the airstrike which, according to Oguna, was carried out in daylight.
Oguna said a military operation covering a massive border area measuring over 95,000 km would have taken several months to capture from marauding fighters from across the border, which still posed a real threat to the security of the East African nation.
But Kismayo unlike Afgooye supplies the insurgents with steady income in the form of taxes and is an extremely strategic city for Al-Shabaab fighters, who have reportedly reinforced their members in the port city, home to the top leadership of the ragtag militia.
With almost a sixth of the entire Somali territory covered militarily, the Kenyan soldiers say there is every reason to remain vigilant against possible incursion following last week’s threats by Al-Shabaab to bring down Kenya’s skyscrapers.
Sources said Kenya’s military has acquired high-tech equipment to enhance the information gathering from Kismayu as it puts in place a concrete battle plan and would be a matter of time before Kismayo falls.
Meanwhile, KDF has expressed welcome to the offer of up to 33 million U.S. dollars placed on seven top Al-Shabaab leaders by the United States on Thursday on its wanted list for the first time for any information that may aid the hunt for the militants.
Oguna said the bounty will positively affect their military onslaught on the insurgents since it will unsettle the Al-Shabaab leadership
“The 33 million dollars bounty will simply put Al-Shabaab leadership under threat. First they will be suspicious of each other and secondly, they will not be able to carry out attacks in one location because of fear of their physical security,” Oguna told Xinhua.
The U.S. State Department placed 7 million dollar bounty on Al- Shabaab founder Ahmed Abdi aw-Mohamed. Another 5 million dollars was offered for other members including Ibrahim Haji Jama, Fuad Mohamed Khalaf, Bashir Mohamed Mahamoud and Mukhtar Robow.
According to a statement from the State Department, up to 3 million dollars was offered for other Al-Shabaab leaders Zakariya Ismail Ahmed Hersi and Abdullahi Yare.
Washington said Al-Shabaab has since 2006 claimed responsibility for several bombings, including suicide attacks, in central and northern Somalia and in the capital of Mogadishu.
“The group is responsible for the killing of thousands of Somali civilians, Somali peace activists, international aid workers, journalists, and African Union peacekeepers,”the State Department said in the statement
The group has also threatened terrorist attacks against the U.S. interests in Kenyan and Burundian interests in the region, after launching attacks against neighboring Uganda.
Al-Shabaab was responsible for the July 11, 2010 suicide bombings in Kampala, Uganda, which killed more than 70 people, including one American citizen.
The group in September 2009 launched a suicide bomb attack on the AMISOM in the Somali Capital Mogadishu, killing more than 20 people and damaging the offices of a U.S. firm that was providing support to the peacekeepers.
According to Oguna, the move by the U.S. signifies that the war against terrorism has shifted from only targeting Al-Qaida top leadership to Al-Shabaab, a development he said will jeopardize the Somali militants’ activities in the region.
“The U.S. bounty will definitely unsettle the leadership of Al- Shabaab and this will affect our military operations in Somalia positively. Al-Shabaab will from now henceforth not be ableto coordinate attacks from one location,” Oguna said.
Kenyan officials say the ongoing efforts are part of an inland strategy agreed upon by the region’s leaders early this year to bring back peace into Somalia after over 21 years of turmoil.
A number of foreigners are still being held hostage in Somalia by unknown militia groups allegedly allied with insurgent forces that used tocontrol much of southern and central Somalia.
Western nations believe there is a high threat from terrorism in Kenya with warning that attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places frequented by expatriates and foreign travellers.
However, while efforts have been concentrated mostly on the political and security operations, experts say there is need to move the process of transforming the peace effort in Somalia from an internationally-driven effort, to one driven by the Somalis.
Previous attacks by the dreaded group included a bomb attack on a hotel, which resultedin a significant loss of lives, and an unsuccessful attempt to bring down a civilian airliner in Kenya’s Indian Ocean port city Mombasa, both in November 2002.
The Kenyan police have encouraged extra vigilance against possible terrorist attacks on public places as a result of heightened flare in Somalia.