Thousands flee advance towards Somali Islamist bastion

September 18, 2012 12:52 pm
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Kismayu has been a long-term goal of Kenyan forces ever since they invaded last October/FILE
NAIROBI, Kenya, Sep 18 – Forces battling Somalia’s Islamist fighters pressed their advance on the key insurgent bastion of Kismayu, officials said on Tuesday, as thousands of civilians fled the expected upcoming assault.

Kenyan troops with the 17,000-strong African Union force, fighting alongside Somali militia forces opposed to the Al-Qaeda linked al Shabaab, have moved some 40 kilometres from the southern Somali port city.

“The Shabaab are in their last throes,” said Kenyan military spokesman Cyrus Oguna, adding that Kenyan frontline troops were now holding the village of Jan Abdala, northwest of Kismayu.

Kenya’s navy are also patrolling offshore from the town – with a population of up to 193,000 people, according to the United Nations – and have fired on the port in recent weeks.

“The assault on Kismayu will comprise ground, air and naval forces,” Oguna added. “We do not have a specific date for marching on Kismayu, but it will be soon.”

Shabaab fighters had also stopped broadcasts on their Radio Andalus, Oguna added, although the extremist group had dismissed reports their gunmen were fleeing ahead of the advance.

“The pressure they are facing is so immense that they have been forced to dismantle their main mouthpiece Radio Andalus,” he said.

But the Al Shabaab are putting up stiff resistance to the troops, Oguna added, slowing progress as the soldiers check for hidden improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

“The Shabaab are doing everything in their power to delay the progress of our forces including lining the roads with IEDs and snipers,” he said. “But we can handle whatever they throw at us.”

Witnesses in Kismayu reported the sound of artillery fire outside the town on Monday, but Shabaab commander Sheikh Abdallah Mohamed said his forces had pushed back Somali and Kenyan troops.

UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, warned on Tuesday that “more and more people are fleeing their homes in Kismayu”. Over 4,400 people have left since the beginning of September, it said, with the “numbers expected to rise fast”.

UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, warned on Tuesday that “more and more people are fleeing their homes in Kismayu”. Over 4,400 people have left since the beginning of September, it said, with the “numbers expected to rise fast”.

Oguna said the AU force had asked civilians to leave areas before they pushed forward.

“We have asked civilians – not only in Kismayu but in other areas we were marching through – to leave for their own protection,” Oguna added.

“We want to limit collateral damage since the Shabaab are known to use civilians as human shields.”

Kismayu has been a long-term goal of Kenyan forces ever since they invaded last October, but reaching it has taken longer than initially estimated.

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