The long-planned assault on Somalia’s southern port town of Kismayu by the Kenya Defence Forces and their Amisom allies is probably only days away in what will be a decisive week for Somalia.
Sources believe the massive build-up of troops, the escalating “probing attacks” to test Al-Shabaab defences, as well as the increased aerial surveillance, are all indications of an imminent large-scale offensive.
Kenyan Navy warships shelled Al-Shabaab targets overnight while Amisom reconnaissance planes were spotted over Kismayu on Saturday.
A Somali source well informed on developments in the Jubba Valley told the Daily Nation that many influential local actors in the region believe the attack will be launched later this week.
Military sources told the Daily Nation that aerial surveillance and reconnaissance flights conducted by Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or drones, started on Saturday.
KDF refers to the initial attacks as “shaping-up operations”.
A seemingly sophisticated and well-choreographed military strategy designed to dislodge Al-Shabaab was agreed after top commanders of the reshaped African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) concluded their planning meetings on Thursday, August 9, in Nairobi.
The field commanders from the Kenyan, Ugandan and Burundian contingents flew back to their bases on Friday morning.
The assault, which will include air and naval strikes to support the ground troops, was earlier meant to start by August 8, but was pushed back after field commanders were asked to modify their strategy following a series of meetings in July in Nairobi, including a comprehensive brief for the regional army chiefs that took place on July 23 in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
Kenyan troops, now in Afmadow are expected to advance towards Kismayu, probably using Biibi, a town located 75 kilometres from Kismayu, as a forward operations base.
They are expected to fight alongside Ethiopian units and allied militia. The Ethiopian air force may also take part in the air bombardment.
Sources familiar with military thinking suggest that the initial air strikes would target Al-Shabaab command and control sites, troop concentrations and convoys and defensive fortifications.
Two potential targets are Kismayu Stadium, believed to be a key logistical and operational hub, and Jilib Beach District, where senior Al-Shabaab commanders are thought to live.
The KDF plans to establish a major logistical facility in Buale District, Jubba region, for which it has assembled an assortment of lethal hardware, including armoured personnel carriers (APCs) and battle tanks.
Meanwhile, Ugandan and Burundian contingents will support Kenyan ground troops with four infantry battalions. Some of these troops are already on their way to Kismayu, having taken control of Afgoye and a string of coastal villages in Lower Juba. Other troops will be inserted into the theatre of operations by air, sources said.
From inside Kismayu, Al-Shabaab were tweeting that the attacks had started.
Ahmed, a 35-year-old secondary school teacher, who spoke to the Daily Nation on condition that his identity was protected, said three mortars were fired into the city at 9pm on Saturday.
Al-Shabaab’s own tweets confirmed occasional shelling from the sea, amid routine claims of civilian casualties.
Residents said Al-Shabaab presence on the streets was lighter on Sunday and that for some hours, the terror group had switched off mobile phone networks and other forms of communication.
On top of taking on much of the fighting in Kismayu, KDF will play a major diplomatic role in maintaining peace and some of sort of balance among competing armed groups interested in controlling the city, considered a major trophy.
Two militia groups, Ahlu Sunna Waljama’a (ASWJ), allied to Ethiopia, and the Ras Kamboni Brigade, which has been fighting alongside KDF, will likely be serious rivals once the fighting is done.
Already, Sheikh Mohamed Yusuf, the ASWJ chairman in southern Somalia, was quoted as saying that his group is the “the proper authority to take charge of the town” while Ras Kamboni official Abdullahi Mohamed said that its only RKB which was fighting the Al-Shabaab from that region before TFG and KDF arrived.
“We are actually confused as to why ASWJ are interested in Kismayu as they have neither taken part in the liberation process which is going on in Lower and Middle Jubba regions…It is better for them to swallow their saliva and stop interfering in our policy,” Mr Mohamed said.