MOGADISHU, Oct 2 – The Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) and allied Somali fighters took control of the harbour in the southern Somali port city of Kismayu, witnesses said Tuesday, as the force made a wary advance into the former Islamist bastion.
“Kenyan troops and Somali soldiers have reached the port… they came on foot and in lorries,” said Kismayu resident Abdusalam Ibrahim. “Some of the Somali forces were firing guns into the air, but we didn’t hear any fighting.”
The port had been the de facto capital of the Al-Qaeda linked Shabaab insurgents for over a year, but the fighters said they had pulled out on Saturday after Kenyan troops with the AU force launched a beach assault.
Kenyan forces have also pushed in by land from west, where they have trekked in for some 200 kilometres (125 miles) after an invasion force of troops and tanks crossed the border last year, before later joining the 17,000 strong AU force.
In Kismayu, a seaside town of some 160- 190,000 people, the majority of residents were reported to be hiding inside their homes as the troops made careful progress, amid fears of booby traps or guerrilla attacks.
“They came past walking slowly,” said resident Awil Hamad, who also confirmed the troops had taken the strategic port, as well as securing the city’s old airport.
“They are moving into new areas in the town… so far all has been quiet.”
Somali troops were reported to be drawn from motley sources, including the Ras Kamboni militia, commanded by former Islamist Ahmed Madobe, who switched from support of the Shebab to fighting alongside the AU.
Residents in Kismayu — relatively peaceful under the authoritarian rule of the Shabaab — are reportedly fearful of violence between rival Somali clans in potential power struggles for control of the port.
AU troops were reported to have first entered Kismayu on Monday, although it was not clear if they had remained in the city overnight, or had retreated to more secure bases just outside the town.
The Shabaab used Kismayu as an export hub for the illegal charcoal trade, and its loss is a major blow to the fighters, and marks only the latest in a string of defeats since they abandoned fixed positions in the capital Mogadishu last year.
The hardline insurgents still control the town of Jowhar, some 500 kilometres (300 miles) northeast of Kismayu, and one small port town, Barawe, lying some 230 kilometres (140 miles) up the coast from Kismayu.