Kenyan troops attacked the Somali port city of Kismayu from three sides on Friday in an assault to drive the al-Shabab militant group from its last bastion.
Fighting was taking place on the city’s beaches after an amphibious assault, the military and resident said.
The loss of the southern port would deal a huge blow to the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabab as it is a lucrative source of revenue and a centre for operations over areas it has dominated in south-central Somalia since 2007.
The group, which formally merged with al-Qaeda in February, has been steadily losing its footholds under sustained pressure from African peacekeeping forces (AMISOM) and Somali government troops for the past year.
While Kismayu’s recapture would go a long way towards stabilising Somalia, which has lacked effective central government for the past 20 years, it may well embolden the militants to resort to more guerrilla-style attacks.
Kenyan military spokesman Colonel Cyrus Oguna said Kenyan soldiers and Somali government troops had advanced on Kismayu from the north, south and from the sea in an amphibious assault.
“We came from the beach side and we’re moving towards the main city. Our surveillance aircraft are monitoring every event taking place on the ground,” Oguna told reporters.
“For now, we’re not everywhere. We’ve taken a large part of it without resistance, I don’t see anything major happening” he said.
In Kismayu, residents said they could hear fighting near the beach, about four kilometres outside the city, as military helicopters hovered overhead.
“Now we hear shelling from the ships and the (rebels) are responding with anti-aircraft guns,” Ismail Suglow told reporters.
“We saw seven ships early in the morning and now their firing looks like lightening and thunder. Al-Shabab have gone towards the beach. The ships poured many AU troops on the beach,” he said.
Al-Shabab, which was driven out of the capital Mogadishu last August and is fighting African Union forces in other parts of the country, said it would not give up Kismayu easily.
“Going into Kismayu is not a piece of cake. We are still fighting them on the beach where they landed,” Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, al-Shabab’s spokesman for military operations, told reporters on Friday.
“For us, this is just the beginning, our troops are spread everywhere.”
Al-Shabab’s radio station, Radio Andalus, was still airing live in Kismayu, urging residents to take their guns and join the ‘jihad’, Suglow said.
Other residents said al-Shabab’s fighters were still in Kismayu.
A woman named Halima said some residents who support the militants had joined them with guns at the frontline.
“Armed fighters in civilian clothes are still in the city but I don’t know how long they’ll stay. They look disappointed,” she said.
On Thursday, residents said planes had dropped leaflets on Kismayu warning civilians to evacuate within 24 hours.
Kenya sent its troops into Somalia last October after the rebels were blamed for a series of raids on Kenyan soil targeting its security forces as well as Western tourists.
The UN refugee agency said 12,000 people had fled Kismayu since the beginning of September after Kenyan forces began targeting al-Shabab’s positions in the city.