MOGADISHU, Somalia -- Somali troops and their foreign allies on Monday occupied the key city of Kismayo, the last strategic base for Islamist militants who had relied on the local port as a main source of revenue.
A Kenyan military spokesman, Cyrus Oguna, said Kenyan forces had also deployed in the southern Somali city. The troops moved in after fighters from Al Shabab, a militia linked to Al Qaeda, pulled out following Friday's beach assault and airstrikes by the Kenyan military. Oguna said further airstrikes were carried out over the weekend to destroy militant bases.
The Kenyan troops are part of a 17,000-member African Union force in Somalia to help the country's weak government confront a long-standing rebellion by Al Shabab.
Residents described a tense atmosphere Monday as troops entered, with fears that Al Shabab would strike back, but said the militants offered no resistance.
Asho Dahir Muse, a mother of five interviewed by telephone, said soldiers were firing warning shots but that there was no fighting. As the day went on, people ventured outdoors, she said.
"People came out when we realized there were no skirmishes," she said. "Soldiers are waving their hands at the people. But we are really afraid of hit-and run attacks or explosions that can cause many civilian casualties."
"I have seen hundreds of government soldiers walking towards the police station of Kismayo," resident Abdulahi Farah Moalim said by phone. "The soldiers were equipped with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, and mostly they were on foot." He said the Somali army had based itself in the police headquarters.
Moalim described a frightening power vacuum in the city over the weekend, after the withdrawal of Al Shabab on Saturday.
"When Al Shabab abandoned the town, armed clan militias were patrolling the city, which increased the feeling of tension," he said. "People want to see government troops once again because without an administration our businesses are in danger."
A Somali military spokesman in Kismayo, Mohamed Dahir Farah, told The Times that his soldiers were securing the city.
"Somali government soldiers are in everywhere in Kismayo," he said. "Our soldiers are in the police headquarters, the administration compound and in a meat plant. We will maintain the security of our people against terrorist elements who try to forcefully occupy our territory."
"It's been a long journey to save our people, but we have finally forced Al Shabab to flee the town."
African Union troops and the Somali army forced the rebels out of the capital, Mogadishu, in August 2011 and gradually expanded their control into the south. But the fall of Kismayo is seen as a major breakthrough.
However, the rebels still carry out regular suicide bombings and targeted assassinations, often hitting politicians and journalists. Guerrilla attacks are likely to continue, according to analysts, with Kismayo as a possible target.
"Kismayo shall be transformed from a peaceful city governed by Islamic Sharia [law] into a battle zone between Muslims and the Kuffar invaders," the group's media office said Saturday on Twitter, referring to foreign troops in its announcement that Al Shabab had closed its office in the city after five years in power.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson on Monday described the fall of Kismayo as a major step forward.
Carson said during a conference call with journalists that the African Union and Somali forces deserved credit for driving Al Shabab back. He also said Kenya hadn't expressed interest in occupying Kismayo in the long term, but was aiming to drive out Al Shabab and create stability in its northern neighbor.
"We believe this will help to bring about a return to stability in Somalia and will reduce over time the terrorist threat to Somalis and to neighboring states," Carson said.
The rebel militia retains control in parts of southern and central Somali, but has lost substantial ground over the past year. Al Shabab also lost popularity among the population by forcing teenage boys to fight, refusing to grant access to humanitarian aid and imposing harsh punishments on civilians, especially those perceived as opposing the movement.
Kenyan officials predict that Al Shabab's loss of the port will decrease piracy and ease East African trade. However, piracy attacks have already declined sharply in the past year because of increased security by international navies in the Indian Ocean region.
-- Lutfi Sheriff Mohammed in Mogadishu and Robyn Dixon in Johannesburg, South Africa
Photo: Somali soldiers sit on their vehicle outside the port city of Kismayo on Monday. Credit: Stuart Price / African Union-United Nations Information Support Team / Associated Press