MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Kenya’s military said it captured the Somali rebel redoubt of Afmadow on Wednesday, but the al Shabaab militant group said it had repulsed a Kenyan attack and still controlled the strategic town in southern Somalia.
A spokesman for Somali government forces fighting alongside the Kenyans said they had advanced to the outskirts of Afmadow but had not captured the town, as Kenya’s military spokesman, Major Emmanuel Chirchir, had stated earlier.
“After a fight we are on the fringes of Afmadow and soon we shall enter,” said Mohamud Farah, a spokesman for Somali government troops in the Juba region.
The al Qaeda-linked insurgents said their positions in Afmadow were attacked for the second day running on Wednesday but they repulsed the Kenyan assault.
“Let the Kenyan troops try to take Afmadow. They always bluff. We chased them away, they cannot capture Afmadow,” said Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, spokesman for al Shabaab’s military operations.
Kenya sent troops across the border into Somalia in October, blaming the insurgents there for a string of kidnappings on Kenyan soil that threatened to harm the east African country’s tourism sector.
The Kenyan incursion is part of a three-pronged offensive against al Shabaab, an Islamist group that is also battling Ethiopian troops in central Somalia and an African Union force near the capital, Mogadishu.
Seizing Afmadow is a crucial step in the Kenyan drive towards the southern port city of Kismayu, the hub of al Shabaab operations, about 120 km (75 miles) away.
The Kenyan incursion into Somalia has resulted in a wave of kidnappings, cross-border raids and attacks inside Kenya, which Nairobi has blamed on al Shabaab.
On Wednesday, a blast outside a restaurant in the northeast Kenyan town of Wajir, near the border with Somalia, killed one person and wounded at least three, North Eastern police commander Leo Nyongesa told Reuters.
A local resident who identified himself as Issack and who helped ferry the wounded to hospital said the number hurt in the explosion was seven.
The attack follows a bomb blast on Monday in the capital, Nairobi, that wounded more than 30 people. No group has taken responsibility.
The coordinated military push against al Shabaab has forced the militants to retreat over the past nine months. Kismayu, where most of the group’s foreign fighters have been based, remains its most significant bastion.
Al Shabaab, which formally merged with al Qaeda earlier this year, has responded by resorting more to guerrilla-style tactics such as suicide bombings and hit-and-run grenade attacks.
On Tuesday, Kenyan battleships patrolling off Kismayu struck al Shabaab positions in the port city after the rebels fired anti-aircraft guns at them.
Chirchir, the Kenyan military spokesman, said 11 rebel fighters had been killed by the warships’ shellfire.
Additional reporting by Richard Lough in Nairobi and Noor Ali in Isiolo; Writing by Richard Lough, editing by Tim Pearce