BY CHRISPINUS OMAR and CHRISTINE LAGAT

NAIROBI, Jan. 17, 2012 (Xinhua) – Kenyan troops pushing deeper into the Al-Shabaab controlled territories in Southern Somalia have marked three months on the battlefield, making gains as they march towards strategic port of Kismayu. The battle for Kismayu is expected within a few days after the Kenyan military announced on Saturday that the troops have moved to within a striking distance of the port.

But the military commanders said the troops would not strike until they are sure the time is ripe for the launch of such an operation, which is expected to change the activity on the battlefield, should the Al-Shabaab flee to other regions of Somalia. “The Al-Shabaab infrastructure in the liberated areas have been destroyed,” said Colonel Cyrus Oguna, the Department of Defence Operations Commander, who issues weekly bulletins on the advances on the battlefield. “We have surpassed our timelines with proportions. We have achieved a lot within a very short time.”

Oguna said. Hospitals in Al-Shabaab-controlled towns like Kismayu were overwhelmed with casualties while the group’s fighting strength was getting downgraded, according to battlefield dispatches. “We have the biggest victory at the moment since we started this operation,” Oguna said. The troops have seized control of several towns in Southern Somalia, closing the exit routes for the Al-Shabaab and restricting military supply routes.

Kenyan commanders said although the Al-Shabaab believes a strike on the port of Kismayu would be the ultimate objective, tightening the control on the group’s former battlegrounds of Tabda, Hayo, Beles Qooqani and Afmadow, is key to success. “This is the sector the Al-Shabaab uses to protect what they think is our ultimate objective, Kismayu. It is not necessarily the key objective. Any sector with Al-Shabaab is a key target,” Oguna said.

Commanders thought because Al-Shabaab is racing back and forth to defend the port of Kismayu and fighting to block the advance on the regional capital of Bardheere after the fall of Fafadun in the Gedo region, the group is under pressure. “We are moving in all sectors. The Al-Shabaab is no longer enjoying the taxes and because the port of Kismayu is the main source of finance, we have interrupted this. This has demoralized their fighters and the leadership is divided on use of the scarce resources. We intend to capitalize on this division by intensifying our strikes and breaking their spine,” Col. Oguna said.

At the heart of the disagreement within the Al-Shabaab leadership is the need to maintain the foreign members within the group and whether the scarce resources should be used to maintain them. “There is an indication that their resistance is crumbling. This is an opportunity. We are not very far from the end of Al- Shabaab,” Oguna said. The military insisted that although taking control of those areas is key to their success, they are less interested in maintaining the administrations. “We are not interested in keeping any ground, that is not the reason why we are there,” Col. Oguna said.

Several weapons have been seized from the militants who have been engaging child soldiers to plant landmines and other explosive devices on the battlefield targeting Kenyan troops. In the last few weeks, Al-Shabaab’s ranks have been hit by a series of high-profile defections. The defection of the group’s top intelligence official in the rank of a captain gave the Kenyan troops the intelligence of intended attacks in Nairobi.

The Kenyan troops carried out disruptive and pre-emptive air strikes in late December last year. After the defection of the top spy, from where the troops also learnt of Al-Shabaab’s policy of striking and hiding within camps for the Internally Displaced Camps (IDPs). “In any combat, you must understand the correlates. We understand those correlates. We do things with precision. There are dynamics in war, which we understand,” Oguna said, explaining the advance so far has been driven by high-level intelligence from the Al-Shabaab’s ranks and the local civilians.

“Those who went in earlier won the tactical war but lost the strategic war. We concluded that to get this going, we have to win the minds. We took books, water and medicine. It is for this reason the war is different and we are certain of victory,” Oguna explained. “We have achieved our objectives.” The battle has been fierce around the towns of Jilib, one of the towns the Al-Shabaab has been using to defend the port of Kismayu. Military intelligence showed that Al-Shabaab fighters use IDP camps in the region as a source of food supplies to sustain the combatants and to attack and hide. The military accepts there have been civilian casualties in the region of Jilib, in the larger Gedo region, because the top Al- Shabaab leaders have been taking cover amongst the civilians.

“We hit an Al-Shabaab logistics base. A rocket hit a vehicle inside the camp and exploded killing four people, including an Al- Shabaab leader in the Gedo region,” Col. Oguna said, stressing the fact that air strikes have been accurate. The military however denies reports that the troops have been targeting civilians. “The targets are engaged based on thorough research. We have been able to hold back an operation and call back our aircraft back to base if civilians are sighted in areas where we intend to engage a target,” Oguna insisted this week.

The battle against the Al-Shabaab has been fought on different fronts. Apart from the three sectors from Kenya’s eastern border to the coastal region, the police have been keeping a close watch on the activities from the battlefield. “We are looking at Al-Shabaab as a band of fighters who have been scattered. We will ensure that they do not scatter to this country,” said Eric Kiraithe, Kenyan Police Spokesman.

“We are telling the Kenyan members of the Al-Shabaab that the future does not spell anything than doom. If the group does not care for Somalis, how will it care about its Kenyan members?” Oguna said. Kenya has asked all Kenyan nationals who may have received training from the Al-Shabaab to surrender promising them amnesty and rehabilitation after it became clearer the Al-Shabaab threat was getting deeply entrenched. (Xinhua)

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