By Richard Lough
TABDA, Somalia (Reuters) - On the outskirts of Tabda, Kenyan gunners hunkered down in trenches, scanning the distant scrub where Islamist militants still roam more than four months after losing control of the town in southern Somalia.
Tabda was one of a string of towns swiftly seized by Kenya in Somalia's arid southern tip, after it sent troops across the border in October, blaming the al Shabaab rebels for a spate of cross-border attacks.
Anticipated advances deeper into rebel-held territory, however, have not yet materialized as the insurgents resort increasingly to guerilla tactics.
"Al Shabaab are still attacking us on average once a week," one Kenyan rifleman who declined to be named told Reuters, peering over a pile of sandbags to keep watch.
"They attack our camp from far, using rockets and mortars. We rarely see them and attacks rarely last more than five minutes. They don't like decisive battles."
Kenya's commanders say their ground-attack troops and a campaign of airstrikes have badly hurt the al Qaeda-backed insurgents in the area. They point to al Shabaab's reliance on hit-and-run attacks by small gangs of fighters as evidence their capabilities have diminished.
The Kenyan army says it now controls a strip of Somali territory running along its porous frontier. Its most forward-stationed troops are positioned 40 km east of Tabda, beyond the town of Qoqani, more than 100 km inside Somalia.
Rebel strongholds including Afmadow, which lies on a strategic trading route, and the port city of Kismayu remain in their sights, senior officers say.
But they are reluctant to put a timeframe on when an assault on Kismayu, the nerve-centre of al Shabaab's southern operations and traditional base of its foreign fighters, might take place.
"Our mission remains to proceed up to Kismayu. Time is not important to us. Most important is how best can we secure the areas we have vacated," said Brigadier Johnson Ondieki.
Kenya's army calls it the "pacification" of areas surrendered by the militants, winning Somali hearts and minds by maintaining security and delivering limited aid to a part of the country that has lacked effective government for two decades.
Any battle for Kismayu would likely be hard fought. Holding it would be even tougher and some analysts say Kenya is stalling for time, perhaps waiting for other countries to buy into the operation.
For now, Tabda residents are on side, hopeful the militants who hacked off the hands of thieves, banned women from wearing bras and conscripted men into their ranks will be defeated.
"The Kenyans brought us peace. They can stay until Somalia is stable," Tabda elder Abduallahi Sheikh Ahmed said, speaking through a Kenyan military interpreter.
A prolonged military presence, however, risks reversing popular support among a nation that has traditionally resented foreign interference.
Kenya hopes to avoid that pitfall by integrating its forces into the African Union peacekeeping mission, AMISOM, which has been in Somalia since 2007 and confined to fighting al Shabaab in the capital, Mogadishu. The U.N. Security Council may vote this week to bolster AMISOM's numbers, paving the way for the "re-hatting" of Kenya's troops.
Britain hopes to build on the modest security gains in Mogadishu, now almost entirely under the control of AMISOM and the government, and in southern Somalia when it hosts a conference in London on February 23.
The lack of political progress in Somalia and fears that al Shabaab's foreign fighters will strike in the West are major headaches for foreign powers.
Returning from the frontline, Ahmed Madobe, who was once a senior Islamist commander before he later allied his Ras Kamboni militia with the U.N.-backed government, said stability in Somalia would come from the grassroots, not international talks.
"Sometimes the international community takes fuel and adds it to the fire," said Madobe, who analysts expect will seek a leading role in the governing of southern Somalia in return for fighting alongside Kenyan and Somali government troops.
(Editing by Peter Graff)