By Sahra Abdi and Ibrahim Mohammed
MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Kenyan and Somali forces were poised to close in on Islamist rebels in their southern Somali strongholds as Paris announced that a Frenchwoman, whose kidnapping spurred Kenya's cross-border incursion, had died.
Kenya's military stormed across the border on Sunday to support Somali government troops in a risky attempt to secure the frontier and its hinterland. The operation follows a wave of kidnappings by suspected militants that have threatened the East African country's multi-million dollar tourism industry.
A Kenyan military spokesman said Kenyan and Somali government troops had killed 73 rebels during fighting, but al Shabaab denied it had suffered any casualties.
"We killed the 73 rebels during our artillery bombardment operations and so far the military has secured three towns... no casualties were reported on the Kenyan side," military spokesman Emmanuel Chirchir told Reuters in Nairobi, though he admitted heavy rains were hampering troops from advancing.
A senior Somali commander said the operation's aim was to rid Kismayu, a port city that serves as al Shabaab's nerve center for operations, of the militants.
"We are determined to cleanse al Shabaab from Kismayu and then from all of Somalia," General Yusuf Hussein Dumaal, head of government troops in southern Somalia, told Reuters by phone from Taabto village on Wednesday.
"We hope it will not take us a week to capture Lower Juba region particularly Kismayu," he said.
Kismayu is about 120 km (75 miles) to the southeast of Afmadow, where the rebels have been fortifying their defenses, digging tunnels and pouring in battle wagons mounted with heavy machineguns to try and stop the advancing troops.
Residents said al Shabaab had detained 22 civilians, including six women, whom the group accused of collaborating with Kenyan and Somali forces.
"There is so much fear. We are even afraid of calling relatives. Al Shabaab listens to whatever call you make because they have access to the phone company operators," local elder Ali Adow told Reuters from Afmadow.
If Somali and Kenyan troops were to seize Kismayu, it would be a major blow to the al Qaeda-linked rebels for whom the city is an important operations base, and the port a major source of revenue from illegally trafficked goods.
FRENCH HOSTAGE DIES
Al Shabaab said Kenyan troops were in the towns of Taabto, Qoqani and near the border town of Elwaq. Residents said they saw Kenyan tanks alongside Somali troops in the Gedo region, near Busaar, about 40 km (25 miles) deeper inside Somalia.
But al Shabaab said there had been no face-to-face combat between the militants and Kenyan forces.
"We deserted those Somali towns after Kenyan planes bombarded our area, they killed animals and civilians. We have not killed any Kenyans in the fighting. They have also not killed or injured a single fighter of ours," al Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab said.
"We shall retake our towns. We shall launch a fierce attack on them. We shall destroy their tanks and troops," he told reporters earlier in Lafole near Mogadishu.
The campaign, dubbed Operation 'Linda Nchi' - Swahili for "Protect the Nation' is a major escalation by Kenya that risks dragging it deeper into Somalia's two-decade-old civil war, but a spate of kidnappings of Westerners by gunmen thought to be linked to al Shabaab left it little choice but to strike back.
The Frenchwoman, 66-year-old wheelchair-bound Marie Dedieu was seized from the island of Manda on Kenya's northern coast on October 1. Gunmen whisked her on a speedboat to Somalia.
French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero confirmed Dedieu's death and demanded her body be handed to authorities.
"France is shocked at the total absence of humanity and the cruelty that the kidnappers have shown with regard to our compatriot, and we want them to be identified and face justice," Valero said, adding that Paris could not confirm the date or cause of death.
Paris updated its travel advisory, warning anyone who goes to the northern frontier and east of Kenya, Somalia and its periphery or near there "is risking their life and freedom."
Another British woman and two Spanish female aid workers were kidnapped in the past few weeks, abductions for which al Shabaab denies responsibility and which it says Kenya is using as a pretext to launch their attack.
Security sources have said the British and French woman had been held in al Shabaab-controlled territory, highlighting the cooperation between the militants and criminal networks such as pirates who hijack vessels for ransom.
MORE BOMBS IN MOGADISHU
Al Shabaab has waged an insurgency since 2007 against the Western-backed government. Facing sustained pressure from government and African peacekeeping troops in Mogadishu, the rebels pulled out their fighters from the capital in August.
But they retained control of large swathes of south and central Somalia and vowed to launch more attacks against government offices.
On Wednesday, a remotely detonated bomb exploded near the seaport in Mogadishu, wounding six people, a day after a suicide bomber killed six people in the city.
There have been no claims of responsibility for those relatively small-scale attacks. Al Shabaab launched its deadliest attack ever in Somalia when a suicide truck bomb killed more than 70 people earlier this month.
The African Union said it supported Kenya's operation.
Kenyan officials warned the instability in Somalia would reflect badly on the tourism industry, the third largest source of foreign exchange last year, earning the country 74 billion shillings ($740 million) last year.
"If we do nothing to attend to the security issue and also sensitize our main markets about the security situation then tourism is likely to go down," the finance ministry's Joseph Kinyua told Reuters, adding the military campaign would not put too much of a burden on Kenya's finances.
Kenya spends less than 1 percent of its gross domestic product on military spending, which meant only operational and logistical funds were required for the campaign.
Kenya has long looked nervously at its anarchic neighbor and its troops have made brief incursions in Somali territory in the past. This week's incursion on a larger scale could invite major reprisals, which al Shabaab have threatened.
Planning Minister Wycliffe Oparanya said: "We are not yet safe, they can retaliate in many ways. But Kenya has decided to deal with the issue for once." ($1 = 99.900 Kenyan Shillings)
(Additional reporting by Abdi Sheikh in Mogadishu, John Irish in Paris, Humphrey Malalo and Beatrice Gachenge and Duncan Miriri in Nairobi; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Richard Lough, Myra MacDonald and Roger Atwood)