* Kenya troops crossed into Somalia after kidnappings
* Residents brace for confrontation in Islamist-held Somali town
* African Union forces go after rebels in Mogadishu (Adds Kibaki, French
defense ministry, troop movements)
By Sahra Abdi and Abdi Sheikh
MOGADISHU, Oct 20 (Reuters) - Kenyan and Somali troops advanced on an
Islamist-held town in southern Somalia on Thursday and African Union
peacekeepers moved on one of the last pockets under militant control in the
Nairobi launched a cross-border incursion into Somalia to flush out rebels
from its porous frontier area after a series of kidnappings of foreigners in
The abductions were carried out by gunmen thought to be linked to the al
Shabaab rebels, allied to al Qaeda.
Officials in Kenya, the region's biggest economy, say the operation into its
anarchic neighbour is needed to protect its multi-million dollar tourism
industry and reputation as a relatively stable investment destination.
"The military response on al Shabaab will not affect tourism activities in
the country owing to a raft of security measures already in place to secure
all tourist activities," Kenyan Tourism Minister Najib Balala said in a
"Kenya will not be cowed by threats from al Shabaab and will continue to
fight in a bid to avert any further threat to the country's stability."
But Kenya's troops, backed by Somali government forces, have found it
difficult to make much progress through torrential rains and heavy, muddy
On Wednesday, a Kenyan military spokesman said the army had secured three
towns. Al Shabaab said they had seen Kenyan troops in the towns of Taabto,
Qoqani and near the border town of Elwaq but denied that any fighting had
"We have advanced. We are now close to Afmadow," Somali Colonel Yasin Adan
told Reuters from an area near Afmadow.
"Our allied forces (Kenyan troops) are with us. We cannot wait for the soil
to dry. We are moving slowly, slowly."
Al Shabaab's fighters have hunkered down in Afmadow, a stronghold which
serves as a transit point for goods from the port in Kismayu, about 120 km
south of Afmadow.
"Tension is high in Afmadow. Whenever we open our shops, people scare us and
say, 'The Kenyan troops have come,'" said Afmadow resident Hawa Gadid.
"Al Shabaab have been forcibly picking teenagers from their houses in the
last 48 hours (to fight). They are determined to fight the Kenyans come what
may. Afmadow is al Shabaab's frontline," she told Reuters, adding that
truckloads of fighters were arriving from other regions.
A senior Somali commander said the operation's aim was to rid Kismayu, a
port city that serves as al Shabaab's nerve centre for operations, of the
militants. Residents said planes were flying low over Kismayu.
A fighter from Ras Kamboni, a militia nominally allied to the government,
told Reuters his fighters and Kenyan troops had passed through islands along
the coastline beyond Kismayu.
"Our militia and Kenyan troops have approached through the coastline - Kenya
puts focus on these islands because if they are secured, there will be no
abductions," said the fighter who declined to be named.
HOSTAGES WANT TO SELL FRENCHWOMAN'S BODY
Kenya has long looked nervously at its anarchic neighbour and its troops
have made brief incursions in the past.
This week's operation is on a much larger scale and al Shabaab has vowed to
retaliate, saying it was not responsible for a spate of kidnappings of
foreigners in Kenya.
It says Nairobi is using the attacks as a pretext for its military campaign,
dubbed Operation Linda Nchi - Swahili for "Protect the Nation".
Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki vowed to defend Kenya's territorial integrity
using all necessary measures.
"Our security forces have begun operations within and outside of our borders
against militants who have sought to destabilise our country," Kibaki said
in a public address marking a government holiday.
Paris said on Wednesday that Frenchwoman Marie Dedieu, whom gunmen seized
from her home on the northern Kenya coast and took to Somalia in a
speedboat, had died, probably after her captors failed to give her the daily
medication she needed.
"You have to know that the hostage takers are even looking to sell her body
... it is completely disgusting," Defence Minister Gerard Longuet said on
Another British woman and two Spanish female aid workers are still missing.
The Somali government denounced Dedieu's death and vowed to bring those
responsible to justice. The government, however, with the support of African
Union peacekeepers, only controls most of the capital Mogadishu, while al
Shabaab has a strong grip on large swathes of southern-central Somalia.
Under sustained pressure from government troops and African peacekeepers, al
Shabaab withdrew from most of their bases in Mogadishu in August, but
remained in a few pockets and have carried out suicide bombings in the
On Thursday, African peacekeepers and Somali government forces captured one
of the last remaining pockets under al Shabaab's control in Mogadishu.
"We have made a lot of progress this morning. We captured part of Dayniile
district," Ndayiragije Come, a spokesman for the Burundian forces, said on
"The operation is going on. Al Shabaab is also fighting," adding later that
some Burundian soldiers had been wounded.
Two bombings in Mogadishu this week, as well as a suicide truck bombing
earlier this month which killed more than 70 people, have raised concerns at
the government's failure to secure the entire coastal capital after al
Shabaab's withdrawal. (Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris; Writing
by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Andrew Heavens)
C Thomson Reuters 2011 All rights reserved
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Received on Thu Oct 20 2011 - 09:11:18 EDT