By Abdi Sheikh and Feisal Omar
MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Loud explosions rocked an Islamist rebel stronghold outside the Somali capital on Saturday, while Kenya said it was edging closer to breaking the back of the al Qaeda-linked militants' networks in the south.
The al Shabaab militant group blamed the attack in Elasha on the African Union force in Mogadishu. The peacekeepers confirmed they had the range to strike the town but said they had not engaged in any artillery fire against the insurgents.
"We heard two big explosions and then we saw clouds of smoke rising from near the bases of al Shabaab near the Al Hayaat hospital," Keise Osman, a resident of Elasha, told Reuters.
Another resident from Lafole, close to Elasha, said she heard the first two blasts and then a third explosion nearby.
"We are in shock. We do not know if they are shells from the African Union (AU) forces or missiles from a warplane," Shukri Farah said from Lafole.
Al Shabaab pulled most of its fighters out of the capital in August but still controls pockets in the city's nooutskirts andunding area.
The group said the AU's artillery had struck a civilian car inElasha and narrowly missed the town's hospital.
Al Shabaab are also fighting troops from Kenya, which has carried out frequent air strikes on militant bases. If this was a Kenyan bombardment it would be the closest their raids have come to the coastal capital in the three-month-old campaign.
Kenya's military spokesman was not available for comment.
At an earlier press conference in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, a Kenyan military spokesman said a series of air strikes during the week had destroyed four key rebel bases and brought the militants closer to breaking point.
"Al Shabaab is more than halfway defeated ... and this is based on the destruction of their infrastructure," said spokesman Colonel Cyrus Oguna.
The militants, who have fought a five-year campaign to remove the Western-backed government and control much of south and central Somalia, rejected Kenya's claims.
"Kenya (did not) destroy a single al Shabaab base," said Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, a spokesman for al Shabaab's fighters. "It is propaganda."
Kenya's reliance on air bombardments and a slow ground advance on rebel bastions have led some Western diplomats and regional experts to question its strategy and capability.
Kenya, east Africa's biggest economy, initially placed much emphasis on seizing Afmadow and Kismayu, a port city in southern Somalia that is a nerve-centre of rebel operations. More recently, the military's rhetoric has toned down.
"Emotions are running high about when will Afmadow go? When will Kismayu go? We do not play to emotions, we do not play to the gallery. We plan our operations and carry them out when we think the time is appropriate," Oguna said.
Kismayu, he said, remained a legitimate target. (Additional reporting by Jacob Kuehn in Nairobi; Writing by Richard Lough)