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Senior Al Shabaab leaders flee to Yemen as KDF eyes Kismayu

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

April 4th will forever remain etched into the memory of Kenyan troops in Central sector, Somalia, as the most fierce and toughest battle to have been fought between them and al Shabaab insurgents in the strategic town of Hosingow. Eager to recapture Hosingow which had been taken by KDF, al Shabaab insurgents launched what they believed was a well co-ordinated attack. They believed that Hosingow had been left with a weaker force after a long convoy of KDF vehicles left the small town for the Afmadhow onslaught.

After the six-hour battle, 200 of the over 800 al Shabaab fighters who had attacked the KDF camp lay dead and 68 others were injured and taken to Kismayu for treatment. "This was the most fierce battle and it lasted six hours. It was significant because of the firepower and manpower involved. Al Shabaab brought over 800 fighters with their best weapons and they attacked in waves.

They used 'technicals', Rocket Propelled Grenade mounted vehicles, Doska, 12.7mm heavy machine guns and B10 anti tank guns. "But the defeat they suffered marked a turn-around in the operation. We didn't lose a soldier but they lost over 200. For the first time they couldn't carry away their dead. Ask them what happened in Hosingow," Colonel Jeff Nyaga, the battalion commander, narrates.

KDF and TFG troops recovered a cache of weapons as the remaining insurgents fled. Three TFG soldiers died during the attack. The attack began at 5:20am and lasted until 12:10pm. Three KDF soldiers were injured by shrapnel in the fight. Since then al Shabaab have not dared launch a major offensive. That engagement defines the war pitying al Shabaab on one hand and KDF, TFG troops and Ras Kamboni brigade in sector two of the African Mission in Somalia.

But all this started on October 14, 2011 when KDF troops crossed into Somalia in pursuit of al Shabaab insurgents who were kidnapping foreign aid workers, tourists and government officials as well as interrupting economic activities in the country. In early October al Shabaab held a series of meetings in Kismayu, Burgavo, Gherille in which they planned assassinations of senior Kenyan government officials and escalated piracy attacks to interfere with ships destined for Mombasa port.

Although the military had established operational centres manned around the year and had been patrolling the border prior to the invasion, al Shabaab sympathisers had continued to infiltrate and conduct attacks. KDF and TFG troops first routed out al Shabaab from Dhobley in a fierce battle. The al Qaeda-linked insurgents were clinging to the strategic town through which they smuggle contraband goods from Kismayu and through which recruits from Dadaab refugee camp are moved.

On October 15, KDF and their allies moved and captured Tabda, another al Shabaab-controlled town, forcing the insurgent fighters to move to Beles Qoqani. Unfortunately, a Z-9 helicopter ferrying supplies to troops crashed on take-off killing all five aboard. "We had just seen the two helicopters take off, but shortly after, we hear them coming back, the first one landed safely but the second one crashed as we watched helplessly. We lost two officers and three technicians. It was the first time we lost officers during the mission," Colonel Jeff Nyaga recounted.

A day later Lieutenant Louis Oketch was shot and injured in the shoulder by an al Shabaab sniper but he was evacuated to the field hospital where he was treated. He is currently at the School of Infantry in Isiolo on a promotion course. On realising that they could not win a conventional war against a well-trained professional army, the insurgents resorted to asymmetrical laying Improvised Explosive Devises. On October 1, 2011, Corporal James Kiptum was killed during an ambush by al Shabaab fighters in Kolbio during which many al Shabaab fighters were killed as did TFG troops.

On December 12, 2011 al Shabaab launched a major offensive against KDF in Tabda which is the next biggest town from Kolbio. They withdrew after failing to dislodge KDF troops. On December 29, 2011, yet another soldier Lance Corporal Willy Njoroge was killed by al Shabaab in an attack on KDF as the troops were travelling to Beles Qoqani. He died on the way to Tabda field hospital.

Lieutenant Evans Ng'etich too was on January 10, 2012 killed by al Shabaab in another ambush in Beles Qoqani in a 13-vehicle convoy. Lt Ng'etich, an artillery commander, was in a convoy between Tabda and Beles Qoqani at about midday. His colleague Lt Peter Muriithi remembers how it all began.

Shortly before the attack, Lt Muriithi stopped the convoy on instinct and asked a gunner to spray the surrounding bush with bullets. Coincidentally his mum called him to find out if he was okay. A minute later, his fiancée sent him an SMS asking him to reply to confirm that he was okay. He says they heard a big bang before the Armoured Personnel Carrier he was in was lifted off the ground by the IED. The attackers targeted the first and last vehicle in the convoy.

When he jumped out to co-ordinate the troop response, the attackers fired at and pinned him under the vehicle. The attackers continuously fired at the APC’s doors in their attempt to stop the troops from disembarking but they rolled out of the vehicle and engaged the insurgents in a 30-minute fight. “I saw the attackers firing but they had pinned me down. They were about 100 al Shabaab attackers and I could see where they were but they started firing at me and I ducked under the APC. I fired at them before the other troops disembarked. I heard a different sound hit the armoured vehicle but didn’t know he had been hit. You can't just sit and wait while people under your command die,” Lt Muriithi narrated.

Forty five minutes later, they discovered that Lt Ng'etich had been hit by armour-piercing ammunition which ripped through the side of the vehicle and exited through the other side after hitting the spare wheel. Five al Shabaab insurgents were killed during the attack. Another commander, Lt Michael Ogeto, also remembers a similar attack on the same stretch of road between Tabda and Beles Qoqani on March 30. The area is suitable for ambushes because of thick vegetation.

However, according to senior military officials, January 22 will forever be marked as the worst day for KDF. Two officers, Lieutenants Kevin Webbi and Edward Okoyo of 1 KA battalion, were killed by al Shabaab fighters in an ambush in Delbio as the troops were moving to Hosingow. Despite the loss, the troops marched on and liberated Hosingow which is about 40km away from the Kenyan border. This was a big loss to al Shabaab because they effectively lost their link to Dadaab refugee camp and Amuma which had been the market for contraband goods from Kismayu and a recruiting ground for fighters.The capture of Hosingow cut revenue from the insurgents. Al Shabaab staged a 30-minute resistance but Hosingow was captured on February 1 as the insurgents moved back to Gherille area, about 60km away, to regroup.

Many attacks on Kenya by al Shabaab had been launched from Hosingow which also linked the insurgents to Dadajabulla and Ifo refugee camp. On May 30, KDF launched an offensive to liberate Afmadhow. They met their first encounter with the insurgents seven kilometres from Beles Qoqani where a 50-man group of al Shabaab attackers had laid and ambush in Abaye Bolow area to stop the convoy from reaching the strategic junction town.

Six of the insurgent fighters were killed and Xayo, a small market from Afmadhow which links Agliib and Biibi, was captured. A 20-year-old al Shabaab fighter who was shot and injured in the leg was captured. The next day KDF troops marched into Afmadhow without any resistance to the celebration of residents.

To counter al Shabaab propaganda that KDF troops had come to spread Christianity, the commanders accompanied by Ras Kamboni brigade and TFG troops called for a public rally to explain their mission. Over 5,000 residents including children, the aged and women attended the meeting. There was no hostility and instead the locals appealed to KDF and its allies to pursue al Shabaab further to Kismayu. The troops are now preparing to launch the final assault on Kismayu based on the intelligence they have been gathering.

But first they have to liberate al Shabaab's communication hub of Jillib before rolling into the port city whose fall is imminent. Intelligence gathered indicates that most of the senior al Shabaab leaders are now fleeing to Yemen and semi autonomous regions of Somalia. According to the Amisom Sector 2 commander Brigadier Johnson Ondieki, the operation has been worn because of pacification of the local community, supervision of the election of elders and organising of the security of liberated areas.

So far 100km sq which translates into a sixth of Somalia has been liberated by KDF by beginning of June. Forty nine-year-old Somalia National Army commander in the region Brigadier General Ishmail Sarhadid Keydsane says they believe that Al Shabaab is dying slowly and the fighters should take the amnesty.


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