- - Thursday, June 7, 2012

KAMPALA, Uganda — African troops are targeting the Somali port city of Kismayo, the last main town controlled by al-Shabab terrorists, after driving the al Qaeda-linked rebels out of strongholds across a nation afflicted by 20 years of instability, war and famine.

African Union troops ran al-Shabab out of Mogadishu in August, but the nearby town of Afgoye allowed the Islamist rebels to control traffic in and out of the capital and extort money from anyone who wanted to enter or leave.

Last week, Kenyan and Somali forces overtook Afmadow, the last main strategic crossroads between AU troops and Kismayo, about 70 miles to the south. Days earlier, Ugandan and Burundian troops had overrun Afgoye.

The town of Hayo also fell last week, with 17 al-Shabab fighters killed there and in Kismayo, according to Kenyan Defense Forces spokesman Emmanuel Chirchir.

Al-Shabab still controls large parts of southern Somalia but has been losing ground steadily.

Kenya’s army chief, Gen. Julius Karangi, predicted Kismayo — al-Shabab’s main supply route and tax source — will be taken over by late August.

Somalia, which has had no effective government since 1991, has destabilized the Horn of Africa with clan wars and piracy that has plagued shipping in the Indian Ocean. The United Nations declared a famine last year after Somalia endured the worst drought in 60 years. Millions lingered on the verge of starvation, and tens of thousands fled to Kenya and Ethiopia in search of food.

Somali warlords and politicians formed a transitional government in 2004, but Islamist rebels gained control of much of the southern part of the country by 2006. A year later, the United Nations authorized the African Union to send peacekeeping troops to Somalia.

Kenyans join AU mission

Now numbering 4,631, Kenyan troops were officially absorbed into the AU force Saturday, joining some 11,000 soldiers from Uganda and Burundi. The Kenyans entered Somalia in October without AU authorization, after several kidnappings and grenade attacks in their country thought to be the work of al-Shabab.

The troops were soon overwhelmed by the mud of the rainy season and roundly criticized by the international community and observers. They have since become a crucial partner toward securing peace in Somalia, said Ramtane Lamamra, AU peace and security commissioner.

Despite the progress, AU officials are cautious when talking about the task ahead.

“Now that we are covering the entire territory, we do have more challenges,” Mr. Lamamra said Saturday. “We need our friends in the U.N. to be able to supply all what is needed.”

Uganda has complained that the United Nations, the European Union and the United States have failed to provide enough firepower, especially helicopters, which Ugandan Brig. Paul Lokech said could help them attack fleeing fighters and advance to new areas.

Since 2007, the U.S. has contributed roughly $500 million to the AU mission, along with armored personnel carriers, trucks, armored and unarmored ambulances, and medical and engineering equipment.

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