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.
This week, U.S. officials announced that the Obama administration will offer up to $33 million in rewards for information about top members of al-Shabab. The program will offer up to $7 million for al-Shabab's founder, up to $5 million each for three of his main associates and up to $3 million each for two other top members, the Associated Press reported.
Still, the State Department has declined to comment on allegations that it helped carry out drone strikes against al-Shabab militants in recent years, including one in February that killed four al-Shabab fighters and a Kenyan who reportedly was not a target.
Al-Shabab is estimated to number 7,000 fighters and formally declared allegiance to al Qaeda in February, a move widely thought to be in response to defections and dwindling revenue from extortions.
Foreign recruits to al-Shabab have come from Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, Yemen and as far away as the United States. U.S. Army veteran Craig Baxam was charged in January with attempting to lend material support to al-Shabab.
Sources of foreign funding are unclear, though many suspect Arab countries may be involved. Eritrea, al-Shabab's only regional ally and a staunch enemy of Ethiopia, denies claims by Washington that it has supplied arms to the group.
Al-Shabab looks abroad
As its influence has waned at home, there are signs that al-Shabab is trying to expand its reach abroad. An explosion rocked an outdoor clothing market in Nairobi last week, injuring 28. The group has been accused of carrying out various grenade attacks and kidnappings around Kenya in recent months.
Meanwhile, police in Uganda announced Saturday that three suspected al-Shabab terrorists had slipped illegally into the country. Al-Shabab carried out a twin bombing of two night spots in the Ugandan capital of Kampala during the final match of the World Cup in 2010.
Also over the weekend, Ugandan police arrested a man who authorities say was a top al-Shabab coordinator and recruiter in the country.
Analysts say al-Shabab's focus on foreign targets reflects its growing desperation, but they warn that defeating al-Shabab in Somalia will hardly guarantee peace and stability inside the country.
"The real problem is creating a Somali government that is widely accepted by most Somalis and that can replace al-Shabab in areas that it still controls. Until this happens, I doubt that al-Shabab will be defeated," said David Shinn, adjunct professor of international affairs at George Washington University and former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia.
"Although we focus on the movement's rhetorical and operation links to al Qaeda, its rise was precipitated mostly by local rivalries and grievances, none of which has been addressed," said Bronwyn Bruton, an African affairs specialist with the Council on Foreign Relations.
Unemployment in Somalia is upward of 90 percent, which creates a further obstacle to stabilizing the country.
"Until something is done to promote real economic growth, it will only be a matter of time until another problem emerges," Mr. Bruton said.
Corruption is also rampant. At a civil society conference in Istanbul last week, officials of Somalia's transitional government illegally charged people as much as $10,000 eachto attend.