Senior Islamist commanders today began fleeing the last major urban stronghold held by Somalia’s Al Qaeda-allied rebel army, taking their weapons, vehicles, and logistics gear with them, the city's residents say.
The city, with as many as 200,000 inhabitants, is Al Shabab’s last significant remaining operating base. If the Islamists lose Kismayo, they will lose their single most important revenue earner – the city’s port – and a good deal of prestige, analysts say.
"The fight for Kismayo has been trailered so many times it is hard to say if what we're seeing now is the start of Shabab pulling out," says a Western diplomat in Nairobi whose docket includes Somalia. "But there have been several reports today, from different sources, that the big men have left. We're not sure where they'd go, and that clearly is a worry. But if they leave the city with no shots fired, that's got to be a good thing in terms of protection of civilians."
The port city of Kismayo was quiet this morning, several people told The Monitor by telephone. Gone were the gun emplacements, sandbags, generators, and many of the vehicles that cruised the city’s sandy lanes for the last three years.
Young armed men from the Islamist army, Al Shabab, still patrolled, but higher-ranking officers had today disappeared from their usual tea shops and command bases. Even Al Andalus, Al Shabab's radio station, was off the air.
“They are fleeing toward various locations, some are going north, some are going into the forests. It is all the senior men; the young boys are still here in town,” says Abdi Qani Ahmed, a Kismayo trader.
Streets empty, jets overhead
Nur Barre, an elder in the city, says streets were empty and fighter jets patrolled the skies above.
"Today the situation is very tense,” he says. “Social activities are very rare and no business is going on because everyone is fearful. We can see warplanes flying over us and most of the people had already fled from here.”
The aircraft were believed to be Kenyan. Its troops form part of the 20,000-strong African Union force that has in recent months pushed outward from Mogadishu, the capital, and swept through Al Shabab’s strongholds, capturing a series of key towns.
Kenyan forces Tuesday were reported to be less than 50 miles from Kismayo, battling for control of at least two towns on the road into the city, according to Abdinasir Seyrar, a Somali Army officer. “We are a short distance from Kismayo now and we can reach it immediately we want to,” he says.
One Al Shabab commander still in the city today told The Monitor by telephone that “these are all fabrications that we are leaving.” He promised “bad consequences” if AU troops began to enter Kismayo.
Capturing the city and forcing Al Shabab on the run has been the strategic military goal of the Kenyan forces since they invaded their neighbor in October 2011.
The attack has been promised several times, and has been delayed. Kenya’s prime minister, Raila Odinga, is on record saying that he would ensure Kismayo fell to his forces by August, when Somalia moved from transitional government to a new post-war administration.
A Kenyan Defence Force spokesman, Col. Cyrus Oguna, says there is "no specific date for marching on Kismayo," but adds that "it will be soon and the assault will comprise of ground, air, and naval forces."