Kenyan forces are likely to see action in a major battle in the Somali town of Afmadow, 620 kilometres south of Mogadishu, in the coming days.
Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) soldiers, together with allied combatants from Ras Kamboni Brigade and units of the Kenyan military, were on Monday said to be headed there.
Residents of Tabto and Qoqani towns in Lower Juba region confirmed that the bulk of the Somali government forces in alliance with combatants loyal to Ras Kamboni Brigade, clan-based moderate Islamists, are gradually moving towards Afmadow, the district headquarters under al Shabaab control.
Al Shabaab has mobilised hundreds of fighters, confiscated vehicles to transport them to the town, promising to make the Kenya army, which it dismissively described as not-combat-tested “to feel the pain of bullets”.
Some of the Islamists are experienced fighters trained by international terrorists. Being a lightly armed guerrilla force, it has in the past attacked and melted away. It remains to be seen whether it will choose to confront head-on a conventional army with tanks and air cover.
“The Kenyan troops supported by tanks and other military vehicles have taken up positions near Qoqani,” an elder in a nearby village, Mr Saleban Mohamed, said.
“I saw around 32 trucks and tanks, with hundreds of troops,” he added.
“The Kenyan soldiers are heavily armed and they have started digging trenches near Qoqani,” another witness, Mr Abdulahi Sayid Adam, said
Al Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage threatened to launch terror attacks in Kenyan cities if Nairobi does not withdraw its troops.
“Kenya has peace, its cities have tall buildings and business is booming there, while Somalia is in chaos. If your government ignores our calls to stop its aggression on Somali soil, we will strike at the heart of your interests,” he said in an address intended for the Kenyan population.
Hassan Turki, a senior southern al Shabaab leader, said his men would force the Kenyan troops “to test the pain of the bullets.” (READ: Al Shabaab warns Kenyan soldiers)
Al Shabaab fighters were on Monday said to be boosting defences and sending “hundreds” of fighters towards Kenyan and TFG positions.
“I saw around 50 trucks and pick-up trucks mounted with machine guns, with hundreds of fighters heading towards the Kenyan border,” Mr Abdi Jumale, a resident in the al Shabaab-held port of Kismayu told AFP by telephone.
Al Shabaab commanders confiscated at least a 100 trucks late on Sunday from the Lower Shabelle region, outside the capital Mogadishu, to transport fighters to the battle zones, witnesses said.
“Many trucks were taken from civilians to transport fighters, they are heading towards the Juba region,” a resident of al Shabaab-held Afgoye district near Mogadishu told AFP, asking not to be named for security reasons.
“They have collected all weapons near Afgoye, and gathered hundreds of young fighters,” another said.
The assault came after Internal Security Minister George Saitoti vowed to attack al Shabaab “wherever they will be”.
In the past five weeks, a British woman and a French woman have been abducted from beach resorts in two separate incidents, dealing a major blow to the tourism industry.
On Thursday, two Spanish aid workers were seized by gunmen from Dadaab refugee camp, the world’s largest with more than 450,000 mainly Somali refugees.
Kenya has been under growing pressure to take action and attempt to restore confidence that it could safely host tourists and one of the world’s largest aid communities.
The troop movements have heightened tension in the area with villagers and pastoralists in the affected district fearing battles between the coalition forces and the fighters of al Shabaab.
Other sources confirm that war planes, presumed to be from Kenya have occasionally been flying over the military positions.
Despite the wide confirmation that Kenyan troops have crossed the border on Sunday, Somali officials continue denying any such intervention.
A Kenya Army helicopter crashed on take-off from Liboi Town inside Kenya, killing five soldiers.
They were lifting off from the area where they had returned after operations inside Somalia when the incident happened, according to a Department of Defence statement.
Parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee summoned Prof Saitoti and Defence minister Yusuf Haji for a closed-door briefing.
Outside the committee room, Prof Saitoti repeated the reason for Kenya’s engagement in Somalia.
In Kismayu, the main base for al Shabaab and their al-Qaeda allies, rebels began heading to Afmadow.
“All al Shabaab’s fighters and their armed vehicles in Kismayu have taken the road towards Afmadow,” Ismail Aden, a Kismayu resident told Reuters.
“Al Shabaab have left only 10 fighters here... people are afraid here, they do not know what will happen,” he said. Kismayu is about 120km south of Afmadow.
A Somali military commander told Reuters his soldiers were also advancing on the town of Afmadow, which is near a now deserted al Shabaab base hit by air strikes on Sunday.
Another Kismayu resident said the militants had urged residents to defend the port town.
Somali government spokesman Abdurahman Omar Osman alias Engineer Yarisow, reiterated that Kenya only helps Somali forces through training and logistical support.
“People may be confusing Somali troops trained in Kenya that are crossing to the other side with Kenyan soldiers,” Mr Yarisow said.