Kenya push al-Shabaab from two towns
Nairobi - Kenyan forces have squeezed al-Shabaab militants out of their entrenched positions in two Somali towns as they step up their offensive against the rebels, who have threatened to retaliate with fierce attacks in Kenya.
Kenya sent troops into neighbouring Somalia last October after a string of kidnappings and cross-border attacks it blamed on the al-Qaeda-linked militants and which threatened Kenya's lucrative tourism industry.
After initial advances, Kenya's troops, who are fighting alongside Somali government forces, have been largely bogged down due to heavy rains.
It has instead relied on air strikes in areas where al-Shabaab has a presence in the south of the country, but the end of the rainy season has seen a dramatic escalation in the number of villages taken over by Kenyan, Somali and Ethiopian forces.
This week, the Kenyan military said it took over the town of Fafadun in a battle which killed three militants as well as Elade, both of which are in the southwestern Gedo region.
Elade resident Abdiwahab Ali said Kenyan and Somali troops had moved heavily armoured vehicles into the town.
"Al Shabaab left for Baardhere after three days of fighting outside Elade. The city is now calm but people have not opened business yet," he said. Baardhere is the last major stronghold for al-Shabaab in Gedo.
Kenyan military spokesperson Emmanuel Chirchir told Reuters on Friday: "The aim is to get to Baardhere and eventually eliminate [Shabaab's presence]."
"Ninety percent of Gedo is in the control of Kenyan defence forces, TFG [Somali government forces] and Ethiopian forces. If the capture of Baardhere is done, entire Gedo region will be under the control of friendly forces," he said.
Rebels vow fierce attacks
Al-Shabaab denied Kenya could capture all of Gedo.
"Should Kenya keep on advancing towards us, we swear we shall enter Kenya," Shabaab spokesperson Abdiasis Abu Musab said.
"Let them boast of going deeper into Somalia. They will see al-Shabaab behind them and fierce fighting and attacks in Kenyan towns," Abu Musab told Reuters on Friday.
Last week, Ethiopian forces captured Baladwayne in the central Hiiran region, opening a new front against al-Shabaab, which has been waging an insurgency against Somalia's Western-backed government since 2007.
The militants pose one of the biggest threats to stability in east Africa, encouraging the African Union, which has peacekeeping forces in the Somali capital Mogadishu, to extend the peacekeeping mandate and to request the United Nations bolster the force's size to close to 18 000.
AU Peace and Security Council head Ramtane Lamamra said as a military force, al-Shabaab was being "systematically and steadily destroyed".
"They have been defeated in Mogadishu, they are being defeated in the Gedo and Juba regions and the same happened in Baladwayne," he told reporters in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa late on Thursday.
So far, Burundi and Uganda make up the current Amisom force, Djibouti is sending a contingent and Kenyan soldiers intend to join as well. That would mean the peacekeepers can extend their capabilities beyond the capital, most of which is under the control of African and Somali government troops.
"The overall strategy is to reduce al-Shabaab's effectiveness to wage any meaningful fight," Chirchir said.
"In doing so we are using intelligence on all their locations, intentions and immediate operations to hit them while in that planning phase so we ensure they can't carry out any attack," he said.
Since Kenyan forces moved into Somalia, at least 30 people, including several policemen have been killed in attacks in the northeastern Kenyan districts of Wajir, Mandera and Garissa, attacks that Kenya has blamed on the militants.
On Thursday, Kenyan police seized explosive equipment in the Dadaab refugee camp near the Somali border, calling it a major breakthrough in their investigation into the attacks.