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Transitional Federal Government forces backed by Ras Kamboni, a pro-government militia, have taken over Afmadow town in Lower Juba in South Somalia from militant Islamist group al-Shabaab, witnesses said.
“The government forces and Ras Kamboni fighters overtook the town without resistance,” Ali Mohamed, a government official in Afmadow, told Somalia Report. “Al-Shabaab retreated from Afmadow after government forces advanced to the outskirts of the town.”
Ras Kamboni and government forces were seen inside Afmadow overnight Sunday, residents told Somalia Report. Government officials said that the situation in Afmadow is calm and there were no casualties reported.
On Saturday, TFG forces and Ras Kamboni, with air support from Kenyan helicopters, seized Qooqani village in Lower Juba after al-Shabaab deserted the settlement.
Kenya has sent forces over the border to pursue al-Shabaab after three separate incidents of kidnapping of foreigners on Kenyan soil by Somalia gunmen - kidnappings Kenya blamed on al-Shabaab with little evidence. The Kenyans are looking to create a buffer zone to prevent insecurity spilling over the borders. They have previously carried out small-scale incursions over the border - despite official denials - and trained militiamen while backing the creation of an autonomous state called Azania as part of plans to secure its borders.
This, however, is the first time Kenya has announced a large offensive in Somalia, and al-Shabaab - which denies involvement in the seizure of two MSF aid workers, a British tourist, and a French woman living in Kenya - accused its neighbor of using the kidnappings as a pretext to fulfill its ambitions of invading Somalia.
The spokesman of Somali government forces in Lower Jubba, Mohamed Dahir Afrah, denied Kenya was involved in the fighting.
“It’s true that the Kenya government is supporting us logistically, but the Kenyan troops are on the border," he said.
However, a TFG military officer in Lower Juba and local residents told Somalia Report that more than 50 Kenyan military vehicles and at least four helicopters have supported TFG forces over the last two days.
“Military helicopters from Kenya are helping us to eradicate al-Shabaab; they are blasting the main bases before we reach; also Kenyan footsoldiers are helping us,” the military officer said on condition of anonymity.
Residents in Liboi said that a Kenyan helicopter involved in operations crashed, although it appeared to be a mechanical problem that caused the incident.
Abdi Yarow, a resident Liboi district, told Somalia Report, he saw the helicopter crash 20 kilometers from the border between Kenya and Somalia.
Al-Shabaab has been trying to rouse residents to resist the foreign forces, raising the spectre of a repeat of Ethiopia’s disastrous invasion, which marshalled support for the insurgents.
The former chairman of Ras Kamboni fighters and current al-Shabaab officer, Sheikh Hassan Abdulahi Hersi (Sheikh Hassan Turkey), held a press conference in Bu’ale district of Middle Juba region on Sunday and declared war against Kenya.
“The Mujahideen will fight against Kenya and will test them with the pain of the bullet,” he said. “I’m calling on all Somali people, especially the community of Lower and Middle Juba regions, to stand to defend their land from the enemy.”
Al-Shabaab spokesman Ali Dhere, speaking on Monday, also warned Kenya to remember Uganda, a reference to the twin bomb blasts in Kampala that killed dozens of people watching the World Cup final in July 2010. The attacks were carried out in revenge for the presence of Ugandan peacekeepers in Mogadishu.
The insurgent group has the capability to carry out bombings in the Kenyan capital Nairobi by calling on sleepers in the large Somali community, and could aim for the many upmarket shopping malls frequented by foreign aid workers and middle-class Kenyans, most of which represent very soft targets despite token attempts at security.
Amid the focus on Kenya's involvement, TFG officials said that they were looking to advance toward al-Shabaab’s coastal stronghold of Kismayo.
“Our forces are currently advancing toward Kismayo and we will continue fighting until we oust them (al-Shabaab) from the region and the rest of the country,” Mohamed Farah, spokesman of the TFG forces in Lower Juba, said. “They (al-Shabaab) are weak and will not be able to resist our offensives."
Al-Shabaab quit much of Mogadishu over two months ago to focus on securing areas outside of the capital and to conduct guerrilla tactics in the capital. However, the group has seen more territory lost in Gedo and Lower Juba, and late last week said it would attempt to retake the capital and had sent forces back.
Analysts say that it will be difficult for al-Shabaab to regain its previous status as a major force in face of opposition from the TFG, AMISOM, militia groups and now the Kenyans.
There have also been many disagreements on how to conduct the insurgency, and according to an al-Shabaab official, these differences of opinion are growing.
“Some of the Mujahideen proposed to vacate all the big towns, since we can’t fight against those troops, and then carry out hit-and-run attacks, while the others want to defend the region directly - they want to bring back all the fighters who left from this region to Mogadishu,” he told Somalia Report on condition of anonymity.