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Kampala, Uganda • Kenyan forces claimed Friday to have captured the last major stronghold of the Shabab Islamist group in Somalia, which, if confirmed, would spell an end to the Shabab's ability to control large tracts of territory and the beginning of an underground, and possibly even more dangerous, guerrilla phase.
According to a Kenyan military spokesman, Maj. Emmanuel Chirchir, Kenyan forces stormed ashore at Kismayu, a port town and a significant conduit for illicit arms and smuggling profits, at 2 a.m. Friday.
"Operation Sledge Hammer executed as planned," Chirchir wrote in a Twitter message. "Kismayu falls and under control." He added: "All forces in good shape and spirit."
Initial reports indicated there had been no heavy fighting. For the past several weeks, Kenyan fighter jets and naval ships have been pounding Kismayu, steadily taking out Shabab positions and preparing the ground for a final assault. According to residents in the town, one of Somalia's biggest, Shabab fighters had been quietly fleeing, avoiding a showdown with the much better armed Kenyan military.
A Shabab-maintained Twitter account, however, said Shabab fighters are still in Kismayu. "KDF cowards attempt to attack Kismayu from the sea but the courageous mujahedeen thwart their attempts," said a message late Friday morning.
Kenya's involvement in Somalia is the most aggressive step it has ever taken against another country. Publicly, Kenyan officials said they needed to invade Somalia to protect their borders, and the first troops rolled in last year. Privately, they acknowledged that Somalia's relentless chaos was hindering Kenya's fast-growing economy, and control of the coastline would allow Kenya to move ahead with an ambitious plan to build a new port on the Indian Ocean, not far from the Somali border.
Kismayu has been a complicated place to rule, with several major clans competing for influence and significant port fees to fight over. Also, though the Shabab seem to have formally withdrawn from the town, they have vowed to go underground and use insurgent tactics.
In the past few months, the Shabab, who have pledged allegiance to al-Qaida, have killed many people with suicide bombs and assassinations. At the same time, the group seems to be retreating to the few small towns they still control in the desert regions of central Somalia and a mountain range in the north of the country.
The Shabab withdrew from Mogadishu, Somalia's capital, last year after being battered by African Union peacekeepers.