Somali troops backed by African Union forces have clashed with al-Shabab fighters, an al-Qaeda-linked Somali militia, as they try to advance towards the key port town of Kismayo, sources from rival sides have said.
Heavy fighting broke out on Monday near Birta-dher, about 40km from Kismayo, the biggest bastion of al-Shabab in southern Somalia, witnesses said.
Military officials confirmed that Somali and Kenyan troops launched an attack on the barracks of al-Shabab fighters in the area.
"The fighting is going on for the second day after our forces supported by Kenyan troops launched a final military offensive on al-Shabab positions in the Kismayo corridor", Mohamed Farah, Somali military spokesman at the frontline, said.
"The operation is aimed to root out the militants before we secure control of the port town", he said.
There are reports that the strongest armed group in the war-torn country has started leaving the town of Kismayo, a key commercial centre.
"The resistance is being squeezed and very soon we will take control of Kismayo as the militants have abandoned the city. We have very minimal casualties so far", he added.
However, al-Shabab commander Sheik Abdallah Mohamed rebuffed the claims and said the group was defending Kismayo.
"The enemy is trying to take control of Kismayo but the soldiers of Allah are defending it; they have tried several times since yesterday and all of their attempts have failed and they were defeated," he told the AFP news agency by phone.
On the run
Al Jazeera’s Peter Greste, reporting from the Somali capital, Mogadishu, said that there are numerous reports of al-Shabab having moved much of its troops and heavy weaponry out of the town of Kismayo.
Greste said there are some military analysts who believe this is because al-Shabab is preparing to flee the town, while the armed group says this is just the group redeploying.
“If al-Shabab falls [in Kismayo] most military analysts agree that it would’ve effectively been defeated militarily,” Greste said.
“That doesn’t mean al-Shabab can’t continue to fight as a guerilla force, but it would be very difficult for them to ever seriously challenge the government again.“
Witnesses in Kismaio have confirmed the clashes to AFP and said the sound of artillery fire that was exchanged during the fighting could be heard by residents.
"There was heavy fighting today but we don't know who was defeated, most of the al-Shabab fighters headed for the front line and there are very few of them remaining in the city today", a witness who asked for anonymity said.