MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — Kenyan troops invaded al-Shabab's last stronghold in Somalia on Friday, coming ashore in a predawn beach landing at Kismayo that appeared likely to deprive the Islamist insurgents of their last big money-making enterprise.
African Union troops from Kenya, Uganda and Burundi have combined over the last 18 months to kick al-Shabab out of the capital Mogadishu and take a series of smaller towns that the insurgents fled to. By Friday afternoon, Kenyan Defense Forces said that its ground troops were also steadily approaching Kismayo from the west. Al-Shabab, which is allied with al-Qaida, had earned money by collecting taxes on goods arriving at the Indian Ocean port, so the loss of the stronghold would be a double blow to the armed fundamentalist group that began attacks in 2007 and ultimately controlled all but a few blocks of the capital.
The assault is likely to send al-Shabab fighters underground. Hardcore fighters may unleash suicide bombs and ambushes but less dedicated fighters could melt back into their communities, further reducing al-Shabab's strength. The African Union force said that some al-Shabab fighters have already contacted military officials in recent days, saying they wanted to defect from al-Shabab.
The assault rocks al-Shabab onto its heels and comes as the government is finally getting organized, having moved in recent weeks from a U.N.-backed transitional government to one in which parliament, which itself was recently elected by elders, chose a new president. Last month, Somali leaders endorsed a new provisional constitution that expands rights for Somalis.
Speaking on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, Kenya's Deputy Prime Minister Musalia Mudavadi called the entry of Kenyan forces into the Somali port "a significant victory."
"This is a major blow to them and we think it's positive for the region and for Somalia," he said.
Residents in Kismayo contacted by The Associated Press said Kenyan troops had taken control of the port but not the whole city. Mohamed Haji said helicopters were hitting targets during the early morning fighting. He said al-Shabab fighters moved to the front line to repel the assault.
Col. Cyrus Oguna, the Kenyan military's top spokesman, said the surprise attack met minimal resistance and that al-Shabab incurred "heavy losses." Al-Shabab denied that the city had fallen and said fighting was taking place. No casualties were reported for Kenyan troops.
Oguna said guns had been placed beforehand at a jetty and warehouse in Kismayo and that Somali national army troops participated in the assault.
An al-Shabab spokesman said on Twitter that the militants still control Kismayo.
"The enemy forces have launched a desperate attack on Kismayo this morning and the mujahedeen forces are resisting their attacks," Sheikh Abdiaziz Abu-Musab said over the militants' radio station in Kismayo.
Oguna said the assault is part of a four-prong attack involving Kenyan forces currently in villages outside Kismayo. The amphibious assault landed between 10:30 p.m. Thursday and 2 a.m. Friday, he said, with some of the troops equipped with night-vision goggles.
African Union troops pushed al-Shabab out of Mogadishu in August 2011, ending more than four years of control of the capital by the fighters. The Ugandan and Burundian troops that make up the bulk of the African Union force in Mogadishu have slowly been taking control of towns outside of Mogadishu.
Still, there are vestiges of the havoc that has reigned over Somalia since longtime dictator Siad Barre was ousted in 1991 by warlords who then turned on each other. One Somali journalist was killed by gunmen Friday and another was beheaded, officials and residents said, bringing the number of Somali journalists killed this year to 15. No group has yet claimed responsibility for the latest killings.
The expanding control by AU troops sent al-Shabab fighters fleeing south toward Kismayo, north to other regions of Somalia and across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen. Al-Shabab still holds sway across many small, poor villages of southern Somalia. Al-Shabab lost another major source of financing last year when it was pushed out of Bakara market in Mogadishu, where — like at the Kismayo port — it also charged taxes.
A U.S. military spokesman, Lt. Cdr. Dave Hecht, said the U.S. Africa Command, known as AFRICOM, is closely monitoring the situation but that "we are not participating in Kenya's military activities in the region." The U.S. has helped train and equip Ugandan and Burundian troops and helps pay and train members of Somalia's military.
The march toward Kismayo by the Kenyan forces has been nearly a year in the making, with the soldiers bogged down by rain and poor roads for months. Kenyan troops entered Somalia last October after a string of kidnappings inside neighboring Kenya.
With an attack imminent, more than 10,000 residents fled Kismayo in the last several weeks. Resident Faduma Abdulle said Friday that she is now leaving too. She said al-Shabab announced false propaganda on its radio station Friday to trick residents into moving toward the invading troops.
"They told residents through their radio to loot a Kenyan ship that washed up on the coast, but instead the residents who rushed there were attacked by helicopters," she said. "Some of them have died but I don't know how many. The situation is tense and many are fleeing. It's a dangerous situation."
The commander of the U.N-backed African Union troops, Lt. Gen. Andrew Gutti, said that more of the soldiers were headed to Kismayo to reinforce those that stormed ashore. He said the aim is to "liberate the people of Kismayo to enable them to lead their lives in peace, stability and security. Operations are ongoing to neutralize targets in Kismayo."
Odula reported from Nairobi, Kenya. Jason Straziuso contributed from Nairobi, Kenya.