The Kenya Defence Forces insist there will be no rush to enter Kismayu in their pursuit of Al-Shabaab until they are satisfied the areas they have captured so far are secure.
KDF Spokesman Cyrus Oguna told journalists on Saturday that they do not consider capturing Kismayu a matter of urgency because they still have elements of Al-Shabaab who might be hiding within the areas so far won.
“It would not give us any tactical advantage to advance to Kismayu if the areas under control are not yet stable. Nonetheless, Kismayu, Xayo and Afmadow remain legitimate KDF targets, but not a priority,” he said at the Defence Headquarters in Nairobi. “It would be foolhardy, honestly, to move forward (at this time).”
Col Oguna said the behaviour of the Somali militants to camouflage with locals whenever they were overwhelmed makes it illogical to keep advancing because they might still return to places from where they had been removed.
In the 18 weeks the KDF have been in Somalia, they have managed to secure at least 110 kilometres into the war-torn country making it an area of about 95,000km2 and a border length of over 860km.
“What this means is that the revenue sources for Al-Shabaab have been disrupted and the contraband routes (from Kenya) have been blocked.”
In recent weeks, there has been little activity with occasional reports of the Forces killing a number of the militants. On Wednesday, for instance, KDF reported killing four militants and recovering four guns. One soldier was killed. But Col Oguna said Kenyans needed to keep hope alive because tackling the militant group linked to al-Qaeda is not an easy task. (READ: Troops kill four Shabaab militants, says military)
At the moment, he said, the Forces had embarked on pacification of the areas they already control. Pacification may mean a military measure aimed at forcibly suppressing elements of militants from among the population.
Col Oguna spoke just days after the International Crisis Group warned that KDF risked losing support from Somalis if they stayed in Somalia for too long. (READ: Somalia: Group wants Kenya exit strategy)
In a report published early this week, the group said “the potential for getting bogged down is high, the risks of an Al-Shabaab retaliatory terror campaign are real, and the prospects for a viable, extremists-free stable polity emerging in the Juba Valley (Southern Somalia) are slim.”
However, the leader of an autonomous state in Central Somalia, Himan and Heeb, heaped praise on Kenya for waging the war.
“I fully support the Kenya Government’s efforts to combat the Al-Shabaab militants as they pose a great threat to peace,” Mr Mohammed Aden told the Sunday Nation in Mombasa.
Mr Aden, whose state borders parts infiltrated by the group, called on international community to support Kenya in order to defeat the group. “Even in my state, we are facing a huge threat from the militants,” he said.
On Saturday, KDF said they would be in Somalia until the people of Somalia (who the soldiers claim have supported the Operation) feel they are safe and that the Kenyan borders are free from attacks from Shabaabs. Since October, 10 KDF soldiers have died from confrontations with the Shabaabs.
But the Forces declined to reveal the exact number of Shabaabs who have died from the combats, saying their main concern is to weaken the militants by targeting their bases, equipment and cutting off sources of livelihood than actually counting those who die from combat.
At the same time, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said they would use the forthcoming London Conference on Somalia to push for a quicker solution to the Somalia crisis. Mr Antony Safari, the 2nd Counselor from the Ministry told journalists that they would support international coordination aimed at establishing local administrations in Somali territories already captured by the KDF.
Mr Safari declined to state the exact position of the government on the Conference or what they intend to gain but said Kenya would appreciate if Somali refugees at the overcrowded Dadaab Camp went back to those areas, but would want it to be voluntary. “Kenya is still engaging International actors for a quick solution and would support a voluntary repatriation from refugee camps because this would ease the pressure and improve the security of the camp.”
The Conference which starts next week on February 23 has been organised by the UK government to address among other things, funding for the AU Mission in Somalia, agreements that should succeed the TFG from August this year, terrorism and piracy. The meeting is also expected to discuss the humanitarian crisis and how the international community should coordinate.