A FRENCH fighter jet struck a rebel base near the militias-bastion port city of Kismayu yesterday, as Kenyan and Somali troops edged closer to another town hoping to strike a quick blow against al Shabaab. The French naval gunship bombarded the town of Kuday, south of Kismayu on Saturday. France joined the operation against the al Shabaab, a few days after pledging to support the push by Kenya to rid Somalia of the rebel group.
Frenchwoman Marie Dedieu is among four tourists and aid workers who were abducted by people linked to al-Shabaab. She died after her captors withheld her medication for cancer and heart problems. The gang later asked to be paid to release her body. "A jet bombarded an al Shabaab base near the port. It dropped a huge shell, flew past, came and then dropped another shell," Kismayu resident Mahmoud Hassan told Reuters. "The whole town shook. We've never heard anything like it. Everyone ran away," he said.
A labourer at the harbour said the militants had ordered people to run to their homes. "Al Shabaab fighters deserted the port but besieged the areas around the base," Hared Ali told Reuters. An al Shabaab official who declined to be named said a Kenyan jet had also struck two bases in Kismayu. "There were no casualties. We fired at the plane after the second bombardment and it has not come back," the senior official told Reuters from southern Somalia.
The US yesterday said it was discussing how to assist Kenya militarily and financially in its fight against al-Qaeda-linked militants in Somalia. "We are talking with the Kenyans right now to figure out where they need help," US ambassador Scott Gration told the Financial Times in an interview at his residence in Nairobi. "We are looking to see how, as an ally in this conflict on terrorism, can we help the Kenyans," said Ambassador Gration, a former Air Force fighter pilot and presidential adviser, adding that the US is considering assisting with training and equipment.
The rebels have meanwhile reinforced their defences in the town of Afmadow, a strategic transit point for goods trafficked illegally through Kismayu, al Shabaab's centre of operations. Foreign Minister Moses Wetang'ula said al Shabaab militants were on the run after Kenya deployed more troops and struck rebel targets by air to secure its border from the rebels.
Wetang'ula said the military was making gains against the insurgents in southern Somalia. "We've made tremendous progress and al Shabaab are definitely on the run. They are looking weaker by the day," he told reporters after an emergency meeting of regional group Igad in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.
Somalia government 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 120km (75 miles) west of Kismayu, where we are heading to," said Gen Yusuf Hussen Dhumal, commander of Somali government troops near Afmadow. "Our troops in Taabto and Hayo have also moved near Afmadow and are just 7km away. We wish in the coming two days to reach Afmadow ... Kenyan convoys are also with us," he told Reuters.
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 militias 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.
Residents in Afmadow, where the rebels have hunkered down, said they heard air strikes overnight. "There are al Shabaab fighters between Hayo and Afmadow and currently it is a frontline," Afmadow resident Abdirahim Ali Abukar told Reuters. "We heard heavy bombardments yesterday afternoon and throughout the night ... but we don't know the specific area and the casualties," he said.
A Somali colonel confirmed "bombardment operations" had taken place after heavy rain hampered the ground troops' advance. "Today we have killed eight al Shabaab fighters, including four foreigners in a bombardment in Kolbio," Yusuf Abdi told Reuters, referring to a town just taken by Kenyan troops, along with the town of Oddo.
On Saturday, the Kenyan military said it had moved beyond Oddo and that it had launched an air strike on Munarani, 10 km from Oddo, hitting an al Shabaab command centre. Kenya is the latest of Somalia's neighbours to intervene militarily in a country that has not had an effective government for 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 US embassy in Kenya to warn its citizens of a possible "imminent threat", with attacks possibly targeting prominent Kenyan facilities and places where foreigners tend to gather like malls and nightclubs. The British government also issued fresh travel advisory against its citizens in Kenyan over fears of terrorist attacks.
The Foreign Office claims it has credible information that Kenya could be a victim of terrorism over the ongoing war in Somalia. "In late October we were aware of credible information suggesting the threat of a terrorist attack in Kenya," the statement on the website says. The UK claims that Kenyan institutions could be targeted as could places where foreigners gather and advice its citizens against all but essential visits. "There is a high threat from terrorism in Kenya. Attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places frequented by expatriates and foreign travellers."
Regional group Igad expressed its support for Kenya's operation in Somalia and urged the UN Security Council to impose a no-fly zone on parts of Somalia and a blockade on Kismayu, the southern port city that serves as the rebels' nerve centre. Prime Minister Raila Odinga meanwhile called on the international community to support Kenya's war against the al Shaabab.
Speaking in Voi during a public rally, Raila criticised the international community for non-commitment to the war against al Shabaab. "We are not interested in empty talk but what we need is a hands-on approach from the international community. This is the time to know Kenya's real friends," he said. He called on the United Nations to support Kenya's bid to dismantle the al Shabaab group which he described as dangerous to the region's security.