REPORTING FROM JOHANNESBURG - Kenyan military forces launched an overnight attack on Kismayo, seen as the last main stronghold of the Al Qaeda-linked Somali militant group, Al Shabab. The troops landed on the beach and took control of parts of the port city, according to Kenyan military spokesmen.
Announcing the assault, code-named Operation Sledge Hammer, military spokesman Cyrus Oguna said Kenyan forces entered the southern Somali port city at 2 a.m. He warned Kismayo civilians to evacuate in order to avoid being harmed. More than 10,000 people have fled in recent days, according to the U.N. refugee agency.
Oguna claimed Kenyan troops faced little resistance but Al Shabab's press office denied that Kenyan forces had taken control and claimed the town was still in the hands of its fighters.
"Kismayo remains firmly in the hands of the Mujahideen," the militia's press office said on Twitter. [Kenyan Defense Force] cowards attempt to attack Kismayo from the sea but the courageous Mujahideen thwart their attempt."
Fighting for control of the city was continuing, witnesses said, according to news agencies. AP reported that witnesses confirmed the port had fallen to Kenyan forces but other parts of Kismayo were still occupied by rebels.
If Al Shabab is driven from the port city, it risks being choked financially. Kismayo is the last port Al Shabab controls, and its major source of revenue through taxes on trade. Reports to the U.N. Security Council say the militia is heavily dependent on charcoal exports through Kismayo.
The militia fled the capital, Mogadishu, in August 2011, but has proven capable of launching devastating suicide attacks and targeted assassinations against politicians and journalists.
The Kenyan forces were part of the 17,000-strong U.N.-backed African Union force in Somalia, AMISOM, fighting alongside Somali army forces and the pro-government Ras Kamboni militia, that have advanced on Kismayo in recent days.
The seaborne attack came after Kenyan vessels shelled Kismayo and launched an airbone attack on the airport Thursday.
"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," Kismayo resident Mohamed Haji said, according to AP.The radio station, Radio al Andalus, was urging people to join the fight against the Kenyan invaders.
Commander of AMISOM forces, Lt. Gen Andrew Gutti, called on Al Shahab fighters to lay down arms and surrender.
"AMISOM’s intent is to liberate the people of Kismayo to enable them to lead their lives in peace, stability and security," he said in a statement. "Operations are ongoing to neutralize specific Al Shabab targets in Kismayo.
“We urge all fighters remaining in Kismayo to lay down their arms. In recent days and weeks, a number of them have contacted AMISOM indicating their wish to cease fighting and we have assured them of their safety if they give themselves up peacefully to our forces.”
Kenyan forces offered amnesty to Kenyans who had joined the Al Shabab militia, if they surrender.
The attack came days after the Hizbul Islam militia abandoned Al Shabab, in a major setback for the group. Al Shabab has bitterly attacked the recent election of a new parliament and president, but the Hizbul Islam militia supports the development.
The Ras Kamboni group fighting to drive Al Shabab from Kismayu, led by Sheikh Ahmed Madobe, was also formerly allied with Al Shabab. Analysts say Madobe will likely be seeking significant influence over Kismayo, should the rebels flee.
Even if Al Shabab loses control of Kismayo, it will still control a large swathe of south central Somalia.
U.N. special envoy for Somalia, Augustine Mahiga, said Friday that Somalia has its best chance for peace in 22 years, as AMISOM and Somalia forces gained territory.
"The pacification of the country by AMISOM and the Somali forces is going apace and the political process following the election of the president by parliament is coming to a head with the possible naming of a prime minister any time this week and the formation of a council of ministers pretty soon," he told the BBC.
"I think this is the best chance Somalia has ever had in the past 22 years." Mahiga said the government was in a position to reach out and engage some elements of Al Shabab to convince them to stop fighting.
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Photo: File photo from Feb. 20 shows Kenyan army soldiers riding in a vehicle at their base in Tabda, inside Somalia. Credit: Ben Curtis / Associated Press