By Peter Martell (AFP) – May 30, 2012
NAIROBI — African Union troops will seize the last key bastion of Somalia's Al-Qaeda linked Shebab insurgents within three months, Kenya's army chief boasted Wednesday, as pressure mounted on the Islamists.
Hardline Shebab fighters are now left with the port town of Kismayo as the last major town they control, and have in recent months switched to guerrilla tactics as regional forces wrest territory from them.
"We continue to exert pressure on Al-Shebab," said General Julius Karangi, whose troops fighting in southern Somalia have joined the 11,000-strong African Union force in Somalia (AMISOM).
Karangi said the port city -- one of the Shehab's few remaining sources of income in Somalia -- would be taken before the mandate of the weak Western-backed transitional federal government (TFG) ends on August 20.
"Kismayo... this target will happen before August when the TFG mandate expires," Karangi added.
The Shebab still control large parts of southern Somalia, but AU troops, government forces and Ethiopian soldiers have clawed several key bases from the insurgents in recent months.
Kenya, which invaded southern Somalia in October before joining the AU force, has previously boasted of imminent victories despite its troops having made slow progress against the insurgents.
However, their troops entered the southern Somali town of Afmadow on Wednesday, a long-term target and another apparent loss for the Shebab.
"Afmadow is falling, there is still fighting but by daybreak it will be ours," said Kenyan army spokesman Colonel Cyrus Oguna.
Shebab fighters in Afmadow, which lies some 120 kilometres (75 miles) into Somalia from the Kenyan border, had held back Kenyan troops for months, blocking the advance towards Kismayo.
In October Kenya's army claimed to be on the point of taking Afmadow, but bogged down by rains and heavy resistance, the troops had since remained stalled outside the town.
The Shebab said Tuesday they had also engaged in a fierce exchange of gunfire with foreign warships off the coast of Kismayo that Kenya identified as its vessels.
"Kenya navy vessels recieved fire from a hostile Al-Shebab watch tower off the coast of Kismayo... we engaged them and destroyed the watch tower," Oguna added.
"We shall be engaging them off the coast of Kismayo as and when opportunity presents itself."
However, other reports from Kismayo suggested other foreign naval vessels may also have been patrolling offshore from the port, but these could not be independently verified.
Kenyan boasts of seizing the port follow a large blast on Monday, blamed on the Shebab or their supporters, that ripped through shops in central Nairobi wounding 38 people.
"We just had a very terrible situation where there was an explosion in the centre of the city, this is of course something carried out by Al Shebab," said George Saitoti, Kenya's security minister.
US forensic experts have been supporting Kenyan police to scour the blast site for clues.
Kenya has suffered a series of attacks in the past several months, which police have also blamed on the Shebab, including the wounding of four police officers on a night patrol early Wednesday in the eastern border town of Liboi.
"Our officers were ambushed by Al-Shebab....these criminals are getting the heat on their side and are now crossing over to Kenya," Saitoti added.
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