, MOGADISHU, Sep 17 – Somali troops backed by Kenyan forces clashed with Al-Qaeda-linked Somali fighters on Monday as the allied militaries tried to advance toward the port town of Kismayu, both sides said.
Heavy fighting broke out near Birta-dher, some 40 kilometres (24 miles) from Kismayu, the biggest bastion of Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Shabaab in southern Somalia, witnesses added.
Somali troops supported by Kenyan defence forces launched an attack on the military barracks of Al-Shabaab militants in the area, military officials said.
“The fighting is going on for the second day after our forces supported by Kenyan troops launched a final military offensive on Al-Shabaab positions in the Kismayu corridor”, Mohamed Farah, Somali military spokesman at the frontline, said.
“The operation is aimed to root out the militants before we secure control of the port town”, he said.
“The resistance is being squeezed and very soon we will take control of Kismayu as the militants have abandoned the city. We have very minimal casualties so far”, he added.
Al-Shabaab commander Sheik Abdallah Mohamed rebuffed the claims and said Al-Shabaab is defending Kismayu.
“The enemy is trying to take control of Kismayu but the soldiers of Allah are defending it; they have tried several times since yesterday and all of their attempts have failed and they were defeated”, he said by phone.
Witnesses in Kismayu have confirmed the clashes and said the sound of artillery fire that was exchanged during the fighting could be heard by residents.
“There was heavy fighting today but we don’t know who was defeated, most of the Al-Shabaab fighters headed for the front line and there are very few of them remaining in the city today”, a witness who asked for anonymity said.