, NAIROBI, Jan – Kenyan fighter jets killed at least 60 Islamist Shabaab insurgents in southern Somalia in the latest assault by regional countries to heap pressure on the extremist rebels, officials said Saturday.
“Levels of casualties were very high in air strikes on Friday,” Kenyan army spokesman Colonel Cyrus Oguna told reporters, adding the bombing raids hit rebel positions in Garbahare in southern Somalia’s Gedo region.
“Provisional casualties are that Al-Shabaab lost 60 or more fighters, and more than 50 were injured,” Oguna said, adding that nine “technicals” – pick-up trucks mounted with guns – were destroyed.
Al-Qaeda-linked Shabaab rebels have repeatedly dismissed Kenyan casualty reports as lies, and it was not possible to confirm the deaths independently.
Kenya sent troops across the border into Somalia in October to battle the hard-line militants it blamed for a spate of attacks on home soil, and are fighting alongside Somali pro-government forces.
Progress has been slow, with Kenyan forces at first bogged down in mud, but the army has been keen to portray an upbeat message of its chance of success against the insurgents.
“We will keep hitting them until their spine is completely broken … and we will relish that moment,” Oguna said, adding that Kenya’s official combat losses so far are six soldiers killed by enemy fire and 22 wounded.
Kenyan forces also seized the village of Fafadon and the village of Elade in Gedo region, he said.
Shabaab fighters control large parts of central and southern Somalia but are facing growing encirclement from government forces and regional armies.
A 10,000-strong African Union force, made up of troops from Uganda, Burundi and Djibouti, is defending the fragile Western-backed government from guerrilla attacks by Shabaab fighters in the war-torn capital Mogadishu.
Ethiopian forces moved across its border into Somalia in November, and last month fought alongside pro-government gunmen to wrest control of Beledweyne in central Somalia’s Hiran region from the insurgents.
Beledweyne is a key trading town leading from the Ethiopian border south into the capital Mogadishu, as well as lying on main route between north and south Somalia.
Kenya said it had exchanged liaison officers with the Ethiopian army since they both face a common enemy, but that the two fronts remained separate.
“The Ethiopians … might ease pressure because Al-Shabaab will be spread out with more enemies to fight, but they have their operation, and we have ours,” Oguna said.
Nairobi has proposed its troops “re-hat” to join AU forces, with the pan-African bloc on Thursday saying it will ask the United Nations to authorise an increase of 5,700 troops to bring the force up to 17,700 strong.
With fighting on multiple fronts, the Shabaab are believed to be struggling financially, after losing a key source of income when they pulled out of fixed positions in the capital last August.
Now the fighters rely largely for funding on the southern port of Kismayo and the charcoal trade, both of which are under pressure from Kenya.
Meanwhile, a senior Al Shabaab intelligence officer is among 20 militiamen in Somalia who have defected in the past two weeks.
Oguna said this brings the total number of defections since operation Linda Inchi began to about 30.
He explained that the intelligence officer is currently providing KDF forces with crucial information about the Al Shabaab which includes their plans for the future and what targets they planned to take out.
“We have many defections. They are running into about 30, in the last two weeks we had 20 defections and what is interesting about this is that the other week we had very senior people who defected to us and this week, one of the people who came to us was as senior intelligence officer,” he said.
“Most of you will appreciate that fact that when you have an intelligence officer with you, that means a lot.”
He further pointed out that the number of civilian casualties since the operation began has been minimal with four people dying due to unavoidable circumstances.
“The only allegation is of three civilians. There was a target close to an IDP camp and this is what Al Shabaab is doing. They are placing most of their operations next to IDP camps and this puts lives in danger,” he said.
The African Union had in the meantime approved a decision to have the Kenya Defence Forces continue their operation against Al Shabaab in Somalia under the continental body’s mission.
In a communiqué from Addis Ababa following a meeting of the Peace and Security Council on Thursday, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) troops will be increased to 17,731 officers from the current 12,000.
The additional 5,700 will come from Djibouti and the re-hatted Kenyan troops. AMISOM will also introduce police to maintain law and order.
If the UN Security Council approves KDF joining AMISOM, the troops are likely to be in Somalia for another 12 months as the AU also decided to renew the mandate of the continental forces for that period.
AU asked the Security Council to expeditiously consider and authorise the request to take advantage of the current pressure on Al Shabaab and consolidate security gains.
The militants are under pressure from Ethiopians in the north, AMISOM forces in Mogadishu and the KDF on three fronts from the Kenyan border.
AMISOM was created in 2007 by the Peace and Security Council of the AU, with its forces stationed in Mogadishu, where they have struggled to hold off Al Shabaab.