Kenyan forces prepare for an assault on the Somali port city of Kismayo,… (Kenyan Defense Ministry )
MOGADISHU, Somalia — Kenyan military forces launched an overnight attack on Kismayo, seen as the last main stronghold of the Al Qaeda-linked Somali militia the Shabab. The troops landed on the beach and took control of parts of the southern Somali port city, according to Kenyan military spokesmen.
Military spokesman Cyrus Oguna said Kenyan forces entered the city at 2 a.m. He warned Kismayo civilians to evacuate. More than 10,000 people have fled in recent days, the United Nations refugee agency said.
The Kenyan forces were part of the 17,000-strong U.N.-backed African Union force in Somalia, AMISOM, fighting alongside Somali army forces and the pro-government Ras Kamboni militia, that have advanced on Kismayo in recent days. The Shabab fled the capital, Mogadishu, in August 2011, but has launched devastating suicide attacks and has assassinated politicians and journalists in the city.
Oguna said Kenyan troops faced little resistance, but the Shabab's press office denied that Kenyan forces had taken control and claimed that the town was still in the hands of its fighters.
"Kismayo remains firmly in the hands of the mujahedin," the militia's press office said on Twitter. Speaking of the Kenya Defense Forces, the office said, "Cowards attempt to attack Kismayo from the sea but the courageous mujahedin thwart their attempt."
Fighting for control of the city continued, witnesses said.
"Tensions are really high in Kismayo. Most of the people are staying indoors at home, while airstrikes and bombardments can be heard," businessman Abdullahi Farah Moalim said in a phone interview. "We heard that Kenyan soldiers captured a small area of Kismayo near the coast and a small airstrip.
"You can hear sporadic gunfire in all parts of Kismayo but Al Shabab forces are still active inside and around the city," he said.
If the Shabab is driven from the port city, it risks being choked financially. Kismayo is the last port it controls and is its major source of revenue through taxes on trade. The militia is heavily dependent on charcoal exports through Kismayo, according to reports to the U.N. Security Council.
The seaborne attack came after Kenyan vessels shelled Kismayo and launched an airborne attack on the airport Thursday.
"We heard that two warships docked off the coast of Kismayo before dawn, and offloaded Kenyan soldiers. Then we heard explosions and shooting," Asho Dahir Muse, a businesswoman in Kismayo, said in a phone interview.
Shabab officials said on Radio Andulus, a pro-Shabab station, that its fighters would defend Kismayo to the end.
"I inform all residents of Kismayo that the mujahedin forces will strongly defend Kismayo from Allah's enemy and they will not easily capture the city from lands or sea," Sheik Abdul Aziz Abu Musab, said over the radio. "They tried to break the mujahedin defenses today but with the help of Allah we inflicted heavy losses."
Kenyan military spokesmen also claimed to have killed many militia fighters. Both sides routinely exaggerate the other's casualties.
"This is the final offensive to drive out Al Shabab from the region, particularly Kismayo," Somali army Gen. Ismail Sahardiid said by phone. "Our soldiers will not stop at nothing to drive these elements out of the country. " He said Somali government forces were 20 miles from Kismayo.
Commander of AMISOM forces, Lt. Gen Andrew Gutti, called on Shabab fighters to surrender.
"AMISOM's intent is to liberate the people of Kismayo to enable them to lead their lives in peace, stability and security," he said in a statement. "Operations are ongoing to neutralize specific Al Shabab targets in Kismayo.
Kenyan forces offered amnesty to Kenyan members of the militia if they surrender.
The attack came days after another Islamist militia, Hizbul Islam, abandoned the Shabab, in a major setback for the group. Shabab has bitterly attacked the recent election of a new parliament and president, but the Hizbul Islam militia supports the development.
The pro-government Ras Kamboni militia, which is fighting alongside the Kenyans, was also once allied with the Shabab. Analysts say the Ras Kamboni militia's leader, Sheikh Ahmed Madobe, probably will seek significant influence over Kismayo if the Shabab flees.
Even if Shabab loses control of the city, it will still control a large swath of south central Somalia.
Nonetheless, the U.N. special envoy for Somalia, Augustine Mahiga, said Friday that Somalia has its best chance for peace in 22 years, as AMISOM and Somali forces gained territory.
"The pacification of the country by AMISOM and the Somali forces is going apace and the political process following the election of the president by parliament is coming to a head with the possible naming of a prime minister any time this week and the formation of a council of ministers pretty soon," Mahiga told the BBC.
The envoy said the government was in a position to reach out and engage some elements of the Shabab to persuade them to stop fighting.
"I think this is the best chance Somalia has ever had in the past 22 years," he said.
Special correspondent Mohammed reported from Mogadishu and Times staff writer Dixon from Johannesburg, South Africa.