MOGADISHU Somali Islamist militants linked to al Qaeda mounted weapons on roofs, dug trenches and armed students in the port of Kismayu, warning the "Kenyan invasion" would lead to "cataclysmic consequences."
Kenya's military has warned Somali civilians to stay away from al Shabaab militant bases in 10 towns to avoid being hurt in imminent strikes. But nearly three weeks into a cross-border operation, the advance of Kenyan and Somali government troops has become bogged down by heavy rains and thick mud.
"They have put their weapons over us. Every high house in the city is a defense for al Shabaab," said Fatuma Ali, who lives next to the rebel base in Kismayu.
"Since Kenya mentioned the 10 towns, al Shabaab have been readying all their weapons and small arms."
Angered by a wave of kidnappings and attacks on its soil, Kenya has been dragged into the conflict in neighboring Somalia, which has had no effective government for two decades.
Al Shabaab has denied responsibility for the kidnappings, saying Nairobi is using them as a pretext for its operation.
Kenya issued its warning of imminent attacks after it said it had received intelligence that consignments of weapons had reached al Qaeda-linked militants in the town of Baidoa.
DIE A MARTYR, ENTER PARADISE
Kenya's army spokesman said on Thursday any aircraft landing in the rebel bastion would be considered a threat.
"All aircraft are hereby warned not to land in Baidoa. Anyone violating this will be doing so at their peril," Emmanuel Chirchir said in a statement.
Kenya's navy intercepted a rebel skiff transporting fuel on Wednesday and killed 18 al Shabaab combatants, he said.
Al Shabaab said Kenya was using the Baidoa arms cache discovery as an excuse to bomb the rebel towns.
It is "apparent that the operation is not simply an attempt to defend Kenya's territorial boundary as they claimed but rather a clever camouflage for the full-scale invasion of Somalia," the group said in a statement.
"(Al Shabaab) hereby emphasizes once more that the continued Kenyan invasion and the callous disregard for civilian lives will have some cataclysmic consequences."
Al Shabaab was arming the populace, residents said.
"They gave arms to people and they're telling them to stay and defend the country from foreigners," said Kismayu resident Amina Mahmoud. "They said yesterday evening: 'Every one of you who dies here is a mujahid and will enter paradise'."
Many Somalis were trying to flee towns, only to be stopped by militants who want them to stay and fight. Some were lucky.
"My wife and children have managed to evacuate from Kismayu on the pretext of looking for medical care," Kismayu resident Ise Sabriye told Reuters. They carried no possessions to avoid catching the rebels' attention, he said.
In other towns, residents said the rebels had quit their bases and were mixing with the population, making them more difficult to pinpoint as targets.
"Al Shabaab fighters are all over the town but they're no longer seen in groups. We see only four to five men in bases that were formerly crowded," Halima Aden told Reuters from Baidoa. Residents feared the strikes would hit them too.
"I am sure Kenyan jets will fail to know who to bomb or not - the fighters have scattered," Ahmed Nour in Baidoa said.
Kenya has east Africa's biggest economy and its troops are among the best in the region. But some analysts say it lacks the muscle to deal a mortal blow to al Shabaab, whose aim is to impose strict sharia Islamic law across Somalia.
Torrential rains have hampered the operations of both sides and forced the militants to resort to ferrying arms around the region by donkey, Kenya's military said.
"Any large concentration and movement of loaded donkeys will be considered as al Shabaab activity," army spokesman Chirchir said.
He urged Kenyan donkey traders along the frontier not to sell their beasts to al Shabaab, warning they would undermine the military operation to crush the insurgents.
The flow of Somali refugees into Kenya, exacerbated earlier this year by famine, has slowed to a trickle due to a combination of heavy rains, military operations families' fears of being caught in the crossfire, the United Nations refugee agency said on Thursday.
"It is not surprising that many families are staying put because they may feel it is not safe to get on the road and get caught in the crossfire," UNHCR spokesman said Andrej Mahecic in Geneva.
(Additional reporting by Richard Lough and Sahra Abdi in Nairobi, Stephany Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Yara Bayoumy and Richard Lough; Editing by Jon Hemming)