Kenyan troops from the African Union force in Somalia entered the southern port of Kismayo for the first time on Monday, witnesses said, three days after launching a beach assault that led Islamist insurgents to withdraw.
Somalian militias who have been fighting alongside the Kenyans also moved in, raising fears that the second city in southern and central Somalia — which al-Shabaab had run for four years — could descend into chaos.
The Kenyans “arrived from the west of the city and are taking up positions,” local Aden Ismail said.
At least two other witnesses confirmed to reporters by phone that Kenyan soldiers from the 17,000-strong African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) had entered the city, after remaining on the outskirts for more than two days.
It was not clear if the Kenyans remained in the city at nightfall.
Other witnesses said they had seen only Somalian militia in town.
Abdirahman Said, a Kismayo resident, said some of the fighters carried a flag reading “Ras Kamboni,” the name of a militia group the Kenyans have been working with.
Dhuhulow Abdirahman, another resident, expressed concern about the presence of Ras Kamboni.
“They are from one clan and other clans will protest if they take control of the port and the airport,” he said.
Residents have reported the presence of clan militia opposed to Ras Kamboni on the streets of the port city ever since al-Shabaab pulled out early on Saturday.
Kismayo was the main target of an operation launched by the Kenyan military almost a year ago. Its troops have since been integrated into AMISOM, whose bid to stamp out the insurgency is also supported by Ethiopia.
Observers have said that reclaiming Kismayo would cut off al-Shabaab’s supply lines, strip them of vital funding and spell the end of their ability to control large swathes of land in southern Somalia.
The US praised AMISOM Monday for driving out al-Shabaab, and urged Somalian leaders to work to stabilize the town.
Top US diplomat for Africa Johnnie Carson called Somalia “a good news story for the region,” pointing to the nation’s new constitution and newly elected parliament and president, after years of lawlessness.
Offering help to build a new Somalian military, he called on the government in Mogadishu to “go in very quickly and establish a political stability, and a political system that takes into account the various clan and sub-clan interests” in Kismayo.
The power vacuum created by what the Islamists called their “tactical retreat” from Kismayo — after initially vowing the Indian Ocean would turn red with AMISOM blood — had left the town exposed to chaos and looming shortages.
“Some people are happy to welcome them because they were fed up with the misrule of al-Shabaab,” resident Abdullahi Farey Hassan said, adding that he had “reservations.”
Since the retreat of the militant group, unidentified gunmen have killed at least three civilians, including a traditional leader, according to residents interviewed by phone.
Somalian government sources said the administration is working on mediating between the clans arguing over control of the town.
Kismayo had also been a symbol of the extreme form of shariah — or Islamic law — al-Shabaab want to impose across the country since 2008, when they stoned a teenage girl on charges of adultery.
Al-Shabaab still control the town of Jowhar, about 500km northeast of Kismayo, and one small port town, Barawe, lying about 230km up the coast from Kismayo.