Kenya is poised to launch an assault on the port city stronghold of Islamic militants the Shabab in a major escalation of its involvement in Somalia's protracted civil war.
Kenyan forces who crossed into their northern neighbour on Sunday aim to cut off the main commercial base for the Islamists who it blames for a spate of kidnappings inside Kenya.
The move comes as French authorities announced the presumed death of Marie Dedieu, an elderly wheelchair-bound woman suffering from cancer and heart problems, who was abducted from a Kenyan holiday island by Somali gunmen last month. France's Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said that sources negotiating for the 66 year old's release had been informed of her death yesterday: "Seizing a woman in this state is an act of barbarity and absolutely unspeakable violence," he said.
Kenya's military campaign against the Shabab, which is backed privately by Somalia's UN-recognised transitional government, has raised fears over the fate of three surviving foreign hostages taken in the last two months.
Security sources in Nairobi said that two Spanish women, working for the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontiere
(MSF), had been seen in Somali villages en route to Kismayo, some 240km from the border with Kenya. But officials from MSF said they have no verifiable information about the whereabouts of the two logistics workers who were kidnapped while working at the Dadaab refugee complex in northern Kenya.
Jose Antonio Bastos, head of MSF Spain said: “We want to strongly distance ourselves from any military or other armed activities, declarations or presumptions of responsibility related to this case.”
British hostage Judith Tebbutt, who was abducted in a September attack in which her husband was murdered, is believed to be being held further north in Somalia
Kenya's advance into Somalia has taken their forces to the outskirts of Afmadow, 160km from the border. "We killed the 73 rebels during our artillery bombardment operations and so far the military has secured three towns... no casualties were reported on the Kenyan side," said a Kenyan military spokesman.
Torrential rains have churned the semi-desert of Somalia's southern Jubaland province into mud, slowing tanks and trucks from Kenya. Nonetheless military analysts expected Kismayo to fall in the next week as soldiers face a militant force that's not equipped to fight a conventional army.
Fighting alongside the Kenyans are at least two Somali armed factions who had been receiving covert arms, funding and training from Nairobi.
The high profile spree of abductions, which have hit Kenya's tourism trade, forced it to abandon the proxy war against Shabab – which had made little progress in securing the border areas - and launch a conventional attack across the border.
A similar advance five years ago by Ethiopian forces resulted in the swift capture of Mogadishu followed by a bloody occupation and the rise of the Shabab as an effective insurgency. Ethiopia has since withdrawn its forces and returned to funding armed factions fighting the Shabab in central Somalia.
A security source in Nairobi questioned whether Kenya had enough resources for the “long haul” of an occupation of Kismayo – the second most important port in the country after the capital. That would remove one of the Shabab's main financial pillars soon after they were forced to withdraw from Mogadishu where they've been fighting African Union forces protecting the transitional government. A shadow administration, made up of Somali exiles, has been trained in Kenya to take over the running of Kismayo and diplomats in Nairobi expect an expanded African Union force to replace Kenyan forces if they can succeed in taking the port city.
The continuing threat posed by the Shabab was underlined on Tuesday when a visiting Kenyan government delegation narrowly escaped a suicide bomb attack which was visiting the Somali capital.