MOGADISHU, Somalia — Kenyan military forces made a pre-dawn beach landing on the last port city held by al-Qaida-linked militants in Somalia in an attack that could see the insurgents lose their last stronghold of value.
Kenyan military spokesmen quickly claimed victory early Friday, saying their troops now control the city of Kismayo.
Col. Cyrus Oguna, the military's top spokesman, said the surprise attack met minimal resistance.
"The operation began five days ago with surgical attacks and gun placement at the jetty and warehouse. In the final operation Kenya's maritime forces and the Somali national army together with land troops with air support entered Kismayo. Because there was that element of surprise there was no resistance," he said.
Residents in Kismayo contacted by The Associated Press said that Kenyan troops had taken control of the port but not the whole city. Mohamed Haji said that helicopters were attacking the town and that al-Shabab fighters were moving toward the front line. Haji said al-Shabab's radio station was still on the air.
"Al-Shabab fighters are on the streets and heading toward the front line in speeding cars. Their radio is still on the air and reporting the war," he said.
African Union troops pushed al-Shabab out of Mogadishu in 2011, ending four years of control of the capital by the fighters. The Ugandan and Burundian troops that make up the bulk of the African Union force in Mogadishu have slowly been taking control of towns outside of Mogadishu.
The expanding control by African Union troops has sent al-Shabab fighters fleeing south toward Kismayo, north to other regions of Somalia and across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen, according to American and African Union officials.
Al-Shabab still holds sway across much of small, poor villages of southern Somalia. But Kismayo is seen as the militants' last stronghold because of the taxes the group is able to charge on goods coming into the port. Al-Shabab lost its major source of financing last year when it was pushed out of Bakara market in Mogadishu, where it also charged taxes.
The march toward Kismayo by the Kenyan forces has been nearly a year in the making. Kenyan troops entered Somalia last October after a series of militant attacks inside Kenya, including multiple kidnappings of Westerners in and around the beach resort town of Lamu. Kenyan forces were bogged down by rain and poor roads but have making slow and steady progress toward Kismayo the last several months.
Sensing the impending battle, more than 10,000 residents have fled Kismayo in the last several weeks. Resident Faduma Abdulle said Friday that she is now leaving the town, too. She said al-Shabab announced false propaganda on its radio station Friday to trick residents into moving toward the invading troops.
"They told residents through their radio to loot a Kenyan ship that washed up on the coast, but instead the residents who rushed there were attacked by helicopters," she said. "Some of them have died but I don't know how many. The situation is tense and many are fleeing. It's a dangerous situation."
Oguna said that al-Shabab has incurred "heavy losses" but that Kenyan forces have not yet had any injuries or deaths. He defended the attack on Kismayo.
"Capture may signal the end of al-Shabab because Kismayo has been the bastion which has financed activities of the al-Shabab in other regions of Somalia," he said. "Al-Shabab has contributed to insecurity in the region through its terror network and influx of small arms and ammunition."
Odula reported from Nairobi, Kenya.