Kenyan jets struck al-Shabaab positions in Somalia Wednesday in a bid to rid the border area of Islamist rebels they blame for a spate of abductions, including that of a French woman who died in captivity.
Kenyan ground troops guided by pro-government Somali forces prepared for a fresh assault against the insurgents with the blessing of the Western-backed government in Mogadishu and its Ugandan protectors.
Nairobi's unprecedented military incursion into Somalia, which it said had already killed dozens of Shabaab fighters, triggered dire warnings by top Shabaab leader of bloody retaliation.
The foreign ministry in Paris announced the death of Marie Dedieu, a 66-year-old wheelchair-bound woman who was snatched from her beach house in the Kenyan resort of Lamu earlier this month and taken to Somalia by her kidnappers.
‘Our aircraft are involved in the operations,’ army spokesman Major Emmanuel Chirchir said, on the fourth day since Kenya declared war on the Shabaab militia and confirmed it had sent its army across the border.
Heavy air strikes are reported to have been hitting Shabaab positions in efforts to dislodge the militants, before Kenyan-backed Somali government ground troops move in to drive out rebels, according to witnesses.
‘Our forces are in good shape to fight this battle to the end,’ Chirchir said.
The main forward base of Kenyan operations is at Qoqani, some 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the border, as they prepare to push forward to seize Afmadow, which Somali government forces are already fighting to secure.
‘In terms of injuries, the first attack saw the death of 73 Shabaab,’ Chirchir said, adding that the only Kenyan deaths were five killed in a helicopter crash.
However, a police source in the Kenyan border town of Garissa told AFP that there were Kenyan casualties, including both dead and wounded soldiers.
Kenya's shock assault against the hardline Shabaab has sparked a fierce reaction with the militants warning of reprisals on ‘all fronts’.
The Shabaab deny any involvement in the recent kidnapping of foreigners, which have raised questions about Kenya's ability to host the million tourists who visit each year and one of the world's largest aid communities.
On Tuesday, a car bomb exploded near the foreign ministry in Mogadishu even as two top Kenyan ministers were holding talks nearby to coordinate the ongoing military operation.
According to medics and witnesses, at least five civilians died in the blast, in addition to the suicide bomber, who a government statement lost control of his explosives-laden vehicle when he encountered a patrol.
On Wednesday, a roadside bomb went off in Mogadishu, injuring two.
‘There was a roadside bomb near the sea port, two people were slightly hurt,’ said Ali Said.
Kenya's decision to invade came after a British tourist was snatched from a Kenyan resort last month, the French woman from her beach house in Lamu and two Spanish aid workers from Dadaab refugee camp last week.
A French government statement said the conditions of Dedieu's detention and the fact that her captors had probably failed to give her medication led to her death.
Kenya's assault -- dubbed Linda Nchi (‘Defend our Country’ in Swahili) -- began without a mandate but Somalia's government and Kenya signed a deal Tuesday to ‘cooperate in undertaking security and military operations,’ limiting Kenyan operations to the Lower Juba region.
Uganda, which provides the bulk of the 9,000-strong African Union force protecting the Western-backed Somali government in Mogadishu, said it welcomed Kenya's military operation.
‘Kenya has a right of defence when their security is threatened,’ Ugandan acting foreign affairs minister Henry Okello-Oryem told AFP Wednesday.
It was unclear how many Kenyan troops were involved and how long they intended to stay but the last time a neighbour invaded Somalia was in late 2006 when Ethiopia decided to toppled the new Islamist leadership in Mogadishu.
Ethiopia had tens of thousands of troops for two years but failed to root out the Shabaab and ensure the establishment of a robust central government.
Witnesses in southern Somalia said heavy rains have bogged down Kenyan troops with reports of vehicles making slow progress on mud tracks.
Officials said the only Kenyan casualties had been the crash of a military helicopter inside Kenya, reportedly due to mechanical failure.