MOGADISHU 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 capital Mogadishu.
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 Kenya. 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 neighbor 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 statement.
"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 soil.
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 taken place.
"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 (75 miles) 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 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 center 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 neighbor 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 but former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan warned it must take care not to let its incursion turn into a drawn-out campaign.
"Our security forces have begun operations within and outside of our borders against militants who have sought to destabilize our country," Kibaki said in a public address marking a government holiday.
Paris said 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," Defense Minister Gerard Longuet said on i-Tele TV. [ID:nL5E7LK2N7]
Another British woman and two Spanish female aid workers are still missing. Security sources say the British and French women had been held in al Shabaab-controlled territory, highlighting the cooperation between the militants and criminal networks such as pirates who hijack vessels for ransom.
"We have seen people taken from the coast of Kenya and then facilitated all the way through al Shabaab held areas and delivered to an area held by pirates and negotiated by pirate gangs," Colonel John Steed, the principal military adviser to the U.N. special envoy to Somalia, said in London.
"They have been taken there to be used as human shields to prevent attacks from other states."
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 capital.
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 Daynile district," Ndayiragije Come, a spokesman for the Burundian forces, said Thursday.
He said two soldiers had been killed and four wounded in the ongoing fighting and dozens of rebel fighters had also been killed. The militants said they killed dozens of soldiers.
Two bombings in Mogadishu this week, and 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 Mohamed Ahmed in Mogadishu; John Irish in Paris and Jonathan Saul in London; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Sophie Hares)