An 80-year-old Somali woman fondly recalled her younger days. There was peace in Somalia then, and people in the town of Tabda in the arid scrublands of the country's south did not rely on the mercy of others for food.
Khadra Muhamud Aden says food supplies to the area are running low because fighting between Kenyan troops and the al-Qaida-affiliated Somali militant group al-Shabab is blocking food from both the Kenyan border and the Somali port of Kismayo.
Officials said Somalia's south is now in the beginning stages of a humanitarian crisis because its residents are not getting the needed supplies, and they urged more relief agencies to step in.
"We want the al-Shabab out of here for good. Life used to be so good. We used to have peace, could sleep at night. Now every day there are gunshots at night. Now when you sleep with fear because al-Shabab can come into your home and kill you," Aden said
The Kenyan army blames al-Shabab for the blockage, and says that it is also slowing the army's advance toward Kismayo. Instead of fighting forward against the militants, troops are delivering food aid to those in need in an attempt to win favor in areas that were controlled by al-Shabab until recently. The Kenyan military knows that without winning over residents like Aden its troops will soon be seen as invading occupiers.
Kenya sent hundreds of troops into Somalia in October to pursue al-Shabab militants whom it accuses for cross-border attacks and the kidnapping of 10 Kenyans and four Europeans, which threatened to destroy Kenya's tourism industry, a key source of revenue for the economy.
Kenyan Lt. Col. Jeff Nyaga said the army needs help to meet the humanitarian needs of the people in the towns that are now controlled by the army.
"Before Kenyan Defense Forces came in most of the goods were coming from Kismayo. But as a punishment to their own people al-Shabab have not been allowing some of these goods to come from the port of Kismayo, precipitating a crisis," said Nyaga, who is leading operations in Tabda and the surrounding areas.
Nyaga said some local aid groups have been supplying relief food, but that it has not been enough, and that international relief agencies are needed. Most international aid groups don't operate in southern Somalia because of safety concerns. He said piracy problems off Somalia's coast are also affecting international shipping lines.
Brig. Johnson Ondieki, the head of the Kenyan ground force in Somalia, said the military's priority is to ensure that al-Shabab does not return to areas that Kenyan forces have secured.
"Time is not important to us, the most important thing is how best we can make secure the areas we have liberated," said Ondieki.
Ondieki said that the Kenyan troops are fighting a militia that can melt into the population and re-emerge when Kenyan troops move forward.
"Our intention is to pacify, allow the political structure to take place and after the political structure takes control we will be able to proceed with our mission. And our mission remains to proceed up to Kismayo," Ondieki said.
Ondieki said Afmadow, the second biggest town under al-Shabab control, was within reach of the Kenyan forces and that they can capture it soon. He said al-Shabab has been weakened after suffering heavy losses from Kenyan air and ground attacks.
Meanwhile, the Somali government said that Ethiopian and pro-government troops seized two villages near the militant-held strategic town of Baidoa, the former Somali parliament seat. Mohamed Mohamud Sheikh Ibrahim, Somalia's deputy prime minister and agriculture minister, told a news conference in Mogadishu that troops would capture Baidoa by Friday.
Baidoa is a major base for al-Shabab.
Residents in one of the two captured towns _ Yurkud _ said they saw tanks and trucks carrying Ethiopian troops arrive after a brief gun battle with al-Shabab fighters who vacated the village.
"Ethiopian troops are here now, al-Shabab have left a few hours ago," Yusuf Ali, a resident in the village, said by phone. "Most of the residents fled because fears of fighting in the village, but the situation is quiet now."
Residents in Baidoa said that bearded, masked men shut down businesses and ordered residents to join them, indicating military pressure is looming. Teenagers were reported to have been conscripted.
"Most of the businesses were closed and they took many of the town residents to the front line," Mahad Abdi Nur, a resident in Baidoa, said by phone. "They warned that any men of fighting age who don't enlist will be punished."
Associated Press reporter Abdi Guled in Mogadishu contributed to this report.