NAIROBI/MOGADISHU Kenya said Somalia's al Shabaab militants were on the run after it deployed more troops and struck rebel targets by air to secure its border from rebels Nairobi accuses of kidnapping foreigners on its soil.
But in the Somali capital Mogadishu, the al Qaeda-linked militants have been putting up stiff resistance against African Union peacekeepers (AMISOM) and government troops who in August had driven the rebels out of most of the city.
Kenyan troops stormed the Somali border six days ago to oust the militants who they say have taken several foreigners hostage in recent weeks, threatening Kenya's reputation as a relatively safe investment and tourism destination.
Kenyan Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula said Nairobi was making gains against the insurgents in southern Somalia.
"We've made tremendous progress and al Shabaab are definitely on the run. They are also looking weaker by the day," he told reporters late on Friday after an emergency meeting of regional group IGAD in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.
Witnesses said on Friday that armoured vehicles and trucks carrying weaponry, food supplies and tents were seen leaving four military camps in Isiolo in northern Kenya and heading toward the border.
"The whole area is like a warzone. It's like the whole of our military is going to Somalia," said Ali Barre, a resident at Diff village in Wajir south, near the Kenyan-Somali border.
Residents in the southern Somali town of Afmadow, where the rebels have hunkered down, said they heard air strikes overnight.
"There are al Shabaab fighters between Hayo and Afmadow and currently it is a frontline," Afmadow resident Abdirahim Ali Abukar told Reuters.
"We heard heavy bombardments yesterday afternoon and throughout the night ... but we don't know the specific area and the casualties," he said.
A Somali colonel confirmed "bombardment operations" had taken place after heavy rain hampered the ground troops' advance.
"Today we have killed eight al Shabaab fighters, including four foreigners in a bombardment in Kolbio," Yusuf Abdi told Reuters, referring to a town just taken by Kenyan troops, along with the town of Oddo.
On Saturday, the Kenyan military said it had moved beyond Oddo and that it had launched an air strike on Munarani, 10 km away from Oddo, hitting an al Shabaab command center.
"We've not encountered any resistance in the towns we secured so far. We are very keen in reducing the effectiveness of al Shabaab in using their weapons," military spokesman Emmanuel Chirchir told Reuters.
Kenya is the latest of Somalia's neighbours to intervene militarily in a country that has not had an effective government for the last 20 years and where al Shabaab's presence has had serious security repercussions on the region.
Regional group IGAD expressed its support for Kenya's operation in Somalia and urged the U.N. Security Council to impose a no-fly zone on parts of Somalia and a blockade on Kismayu, the southern port city that serves as the rebels' nerve center.
SHABAAB CLAIMS VICTORY
In Mogadishu, the rebels launched a counter-attack late on Friday in the Daynile district, the scene of a battle on Thursday in which AMISOM said at least 10 of its soldiers had been killed.
Senior Somali and Burundian military officials have also said some soldiers are missing from that battle, indicating the toll could be higher.
Some 9,000 soldiers from Burundi and Uganda make up AMISOM and the force commander has called for an increase in troops to be able to fully secure Mogadishu.
Al Shabaab say they have killed more than 70 peacekeepers and displayed their corpses in uniform to journalists on Thursday. The AU force dismissed it as propaganda.
On Saturday the rebels took journalists around parts of Daynile district that it still controlled and displayed an anti-aircraft gun mounted on a pickup truck they said they seized from government and AU forces in the fighting.
"I would like to congratulate the Shabaab mujahideen fighters who showed courage and bravery in the fight against AMISOM, particularly the last historic conflict in Daynile in which dozens of AU invaders were massacred," al Shabaab leader Sheikh Abu Zubeyr told the militants' radio station Al Andalus on Saturday.
Since being forced out of Mogadishu months ago, the militants have managed to carry out attacks against government institutions, raising concerns about AMISOM's and the Western-backed government's failure to secure the capital.
(Additional reporting by Humphrey Malalo in Nairobi; Mohamed Ahmed, Sahra Abdi and Feisal Omar in Mogadishu; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Elizabeth Piper)