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100 days after Kenya military entered Somalia

By | January 26th 2012
By | January 26th 2012

By David Ochami

[In Southern Somalia]

Today is the 100th day since Kenya Defence Forces entered Somalia in pursuit of Al Shabaab militia, but the exit is still closed and scorecard reportedly in favour of KDF.

Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) say their stay in Somalia has no time limit. [PHOTO: FILE/STANDARD]

The military top brass won’t call it an invasion, but an operation because the war is being fought alongside Somalia Transitional Government Forces. Nonetheless there is every sign both sides are in for the long haul.

Asked how long KDF intends to fight out in Somalia, a senior military officer responded their operation is indefinite. "There is no time limit. We are in Somalia for the long haul, and we are going to be operating according to international standards," said Colonel Cyrus Oguna, the officer in charge of operations and information in KDF. KDF is transiting from its independence of operations in Somalia into the command of African Union Mission in Somalia, which the United Nations supports.

In the last three months following the October 24 intervention KDF says seven Kenyan soldiers have been killed in hostile action, with eight others slain in a helicopter crash on the first day of the intervention. Unconfirmed reports indicated that two KDF soldiers were killed yesterday in a fierce fight with Al Shabaab near Afmadow in the Central Sector of the Operation Linda Nchi. With the leaf turning in the 100th day, major townships in Jubaland, among them, Bilis Qooqani, Ras Kamboni, Bibi, Jilib, Tabda, Gherile and Bardere have been liberated from the militia, which uses guerilla-like tactics, and handed over to TFG’s police service.

"Al Shabaab is halfway in the pit," said Oguna on Saturday as he accused Al Shabaab of resorting to asymmetrical tactics against ‘soft targets’ in the wake of KDF "military might".

Bad Weather

Oguna also predicted it would not be long before Al Shabaab is buried. During the operation hundreds of Al Shabaab fighters have been killed as they tried to either resist or fight back.

Until late December last year, and early January, the international media wrote that Kenya’s military incursion in Somalia was bogged down in bad weather.

When the KDF crossed into Somalia the towns near the border fell easily, almost without a fight although Al Shabaab had in many cases encouraged or forced the residents to flee from a massacre by "infidels". But the militants tended to resist the capture of towns further inland. Even where they fled without a fight, the militants have tried to recapture lost towns.

In Busar, about 73km from Kenya-Somalia border, Al Shabaab offered stiff resistance, as the KDF swept in. A soldier was killed mid-November when the militants shelled a KDF base with Rocket Propelled Grenade. Residents report that Al Shabaab fighters who stayed in Busar as the Kenyan soldiers advanced, say the militia’s resistance crumbled within 30 minutes.

Major Joel Tanui of KDF, who led the capture of Busar, told The Standard in an exclusive interview recently "as we were getting in, "Al Shabaab fighters tried to resist from buildings and outskirts of the town". The militants reportedly unleashed small arms fires from hillsides and valleys around Busar, the most important weapons in their arsenal, according to KDF and TFG analyses. According to TFG and KDF offi-cials, Al Shabaab changes tactics to adapt to its enemy’s strategy, but so far KDF has detonated bombs buried on roads targeting KDF, largely because of the strict rules of engagement between the KDF and the civilian population and also due to the fact that the militants have tended to flee combat.

Prior to the Kenyan intervention Al Shabaab tended to deploy thousands of fighters on trucks to seize towns. This tactic was used on Burhache, a strategic town close to the Kenyan border, which the militants lost in March, last year.

Due to the fear of air strikes Al Shabaab has avoided motorised transport of large numbers in favour of small teams of mobile fighters. "They have also become highly mobile to avoid aircraft," TFG regional spokesman, Warfa Sheikh Aden, said. He also reports that to avoid air strikes, Al Shabaab has lately placed its fighters and trucks next water wells and areas with civilian concentrations.

In Busar, Major Tanui says as the KDF entered the town, Al Shabaab fighters were shelling the Kenyan military from residential buildings, thus using civilians as human shields.

Heavy Weapons

According to Warfa the most decisive battle in the Northern Sector will be fought in Bardheere and Burdubo, two key towns on the main highway to Baidoa in South Central Somalia. In the Northern Sector, Al Shabaab is believed to have moved many of its fighters and heavy weapons to bridges on the Juba River, intending to cut them if KFF overpowers them. It has also staged fighters, including foreigners in the deep valleys and mountainous ranges around El Ade, which Kenyan planes have bombed to slow or deter advance on Bardheere. When they move, they dismount from vehicles at regular intervals to plant gadgets that would ease navigation at night, as they radiate light. Says Warfa: "They normally fight in the morning and evening so that they can get adequate time to retreat under cover of darkness and cooler temperatures." "They also like to ambush from mountainous areas and deep valleys. When their strength is low they remove their uniform and fight within the civilian population," he added. Beyond the battlefield KDF and Al Shabaab have escalated the conflict on Twitter and other cyberspace engines. On Saturday Oguna explained KDF was "halfway" it operations having killed several Al Shabaab commanders and destroyed their vehicles and communication apparatus in Tatar, Jilib and Hayo towns of the Central, and Southern sectors whose ultimate military targets are Afmadow and Kismayu.

Despite emerging evidence of territorial gains former US ambassador in Ethiopia told Voice of America on Sunday that KDF seems to be "bogged down in Somalia". He was suggesting Kenyans did not seem to have a plan for going into the war-torn country.

Fight Back

But Sheen admitted that after three months, KDF seems to have created a "modest buffer zone" after routing the militants from several border and inland towns. KDF and TFG killed key Al Shabaab commander Sheikh Hussein Hassan in the Fafahduun capture on January 3. An unnamed Al Shabaab was also killed in an air strike on Garbaharrey town of the Northern Sector on January 7, according to TFG and KDF sources.

Despite inflicting damage on Al Shabaab forces and expelling them from huge sections of the Gedo region, Kenyan and TFG planners are not under-estimating the militants’ ability to fight back.

According to the TFG spokesman in Somalia’s Burhache town, in a December interview, Al Shabaab is in disarray, but retains capacity to inflict damage on the allied forces and civilian population. Neither have the militants lost their immense propaganda capabilities.

For example, they routinely disclaim their dead or claim all their dead as civilians. In recent days they have stepped up the use of improvised explosive devices in the Central and Northern sectors.

KDF has established bases deep into Somalia, including at Busar, El Ade, Fafahduun in the Northern Sector, and Bilis Qooqani, Afmadow and Tabda in the Central Sector.

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