Militants with the Islamist group Al-Shabaab were fighting a losing battle yesterday to hold on to their last bastion in Somalia after Kenyan forces launched an amphibious assault on the port city.
After weeks of naval bombardments and a slow encircling of Kismayo, Kenyan troops under the banner of the African Union (AU) landed on beaches northeast of the city early yesterday morning.
The port has been the stronghold and main source of revenue for the militant allies of al-Qa'ida, who retreated from the capital Mogadishu in August last year and have lost ground to AU forces elsewhere. Some 12,000 people have fled the city in recent weeks, according to the UN, as shelling and air attacks have intensified.
Kismayo residents last night described seeing scores of Al-Shabaab militia fighters taking up positions on the tallest buildings as Kenyan forces prepared to push into the centre of the city. A radio station run by the militants was broadcasting appeals for residents to take up arms and fight "foreign invaders".
Kenyan armed forces spokesman Cyrus Oguna predicted a swift capture: "Our surveillance aircraft are monitoring every event on the ground. We've taken a large part of it without resistance, I don't see anything major happening."
Residents said al-Shabaab still controlled three of the four main entrances to Kismayo. AU forces and Somali clan militia allied to the Kenyans had surrounded the city.
Witnesses reported seeing helicopters flying over the city and burning buildings to the north .
Residents said about 200 Kenyan troops came ashore in the middle of the night in a seafront area four kilometres north of the city. They arrested two clan elders but no civilian casualties were reported.
Many civilians in Kismayo have been angered by the Kenyan's failure to establish a humanitarian corridor allowing residents to escape. "We feel like we've been trapped," one resident said. "The border to Kenya in the south and west is sealed and people have been killed on the road (north) to Mogadishu."
Unconfirmed reports claimed US or European troops were in the vanguard that entered the city, but the US military command for Africa, Africom, said it was "not participating in Kenya's military activities."
Western diplomats in Nairobi said they had not been informed of the decision to enter the port city.