Ethiopia: Simmering Somali Situations

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September 30, 2012: So far the power transition following the death of Ethiopian leader Meles Zenawi has gone smoothly. Acting Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn became prime minister on September 15. He also assumed leadership of the governing party, the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPDRF). No one expects Hailemariam to make any drastic changes, at least for the time being. There are many reasons. The government is watching the rapidly unfolding events in southern Somalia, where the assault on Kismayo proved to be a Kenyan military show, not one led by the Ethiopian Army. Hailemariam’s government is also trying to broker a border settlement between Sudan and South Sudan. But the main reason is Meles legacy. He has a long shadow. Ethiopian media continues to run numerous reflections on Meles 21 years in power, some worshipful, some bitterly harsh. The more positive tend to treat Meles as a revolutionary leader who brought Ethiopia out of the chaos following the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie. The harsh depict him as an ethnic (Tigre) bandit who pillaged Ethiopia. Both extremes contain an element of truth. Meles and his cohorts intimidated political opponents and jailed opposition leaders. He also emphasized improving Ethiopia’s economy.

September 29, 2012: Al Shabaab announced that is has withdrawn its fighters from the Somali port of Kismayo. What the Somali Islamic terrorists characterize as a withdrawal, AMISOM (African Union Mission in Somalia) is calling a retreat after the Kenyan-led attack on September 28. Al Shabaab did say that its fighters would strike back at the attacking forces.

In contrast, the Kenyan government called the attack on the Somali port of Kismayo a significant victory over al Shabaab. However, key government officials made it clear that the war in Somalia is not over for the Kenyan military and other AMISOM forces. Kismayo served as Al Shabaab’s chief supply depot for ammunition and weapons, and its loss will hurt the radical group. The implication was that al Shabaab was badly damaged but it is by no means completely defeated. The Kenyans have repeatedly said the process of reconstructing Somalia will be a long one. This is one reason Kenyan officials spent a lot of time negotiating with clan leaders in southern Somalia.

September 28, 2012: AMISOM forces, led by the Kenyan Army (Kenyan Defense Forces, KDF), and forces loyal to Somalia’s new government finally assaulted the southern Somali port of Kismayo. The Somali forces included elements of the Ras Kamboni brigade, a southern Somali militia. The operation was quite sophisticated, combining ground, air, and naval forces.

The assault was a long time coming. In October 2011, Kenya designated Kismayo as the major objective of Kenya’s offensive thrust into southern Somalia. So why did it take so long? There were the usual reasons. Logistics problems nagged Kenyan and AMISOM forces. There was the usual political infighting that occurs in coalition warfare. But there was also some judicious calculation. Kenyan government officials argued that the strategic objective is a stable Somalia. Inflicting heavy casualties on Somali civilians in Kismayo might produce a military victory but it would also anger the Somalis. That would seed a political defeat. The Kenyans and AMISOM also did not want a power vacuum in southern Somalia. There needed to be a TNG presence of some type. So Kismayo’s political battlefield required extensive preparation.

However, the KDF threatened to attack Kismayo so many times it began to sound like bluster. Since Spring 2012, AMISOM officials and the Kenyan military regularly claimed in press briefings and press statements that the attack on the port would begin very soon, always suggesting the assault would come in two or three days, or perhaps a week. This can be an effective tactic, to lull both the enemy and the press into complacency.

But the Kenyans weren’t all talk and bluff. Combat did occur in the Kismayo region. Every three or four days AMISOM forces would spar with al Shabaab fighters holding positions anywhere from 30 to 50 kilometers from the port. The port itself also came under fire. Throughout the summer KDF naval vessels and warplanes attacked targets in and around the port. At times the naval raids were mere harassment but some of the attacks went after al Shabaab garrisons and supply warehouses. In retrospect, there would be periods of intense naval activity, often coinciding with press statements by Kenyan officers that the assault was about to begin. But the coup de grace ground assault would fail to materialize.

At one point the Ethiopian military indicated that it might send a task force south to reinforce the Kenyan attack. The Ethiopian Army is overall the best military organization operating in Somalia and Al Shabaab knows it. Many Somalis, however, regard Ethiopia as a foreign invader. AMISOM troops and pro-TNG forces liberating the port would be more politically palatable. Kenyan military forces officially became part of AMISOM in July. This is political preparation of the battlefield, but there may have been some operational deception as well. Al Shabaab may have believed that as long as Ethiopian Army forces were not near Kismayo, the big attack would not occur.

According to fragmentary reports, the attack began with an amphibious operation launched about 0200 hours (September 28). The amphibious attack caught the Al Shabaab fighters in the town by surprise. The forces landed about six kilometers (one source says nine) north of the port and immediately cut the Kismayo-Mogadishu highway. At that point a general assault on the city began, with Kenyan air and naval units providing fire support for the AMISOM and Somali TNG forces. According to one Kenyan report, a Kenyan Army unit had seized the port facilities (dock area). Al Shabaab disputed that claim and counter-claimed that its fighters had destroyed two Kenyan armored personnel carriers which had entered the outskirts of the city. Even if the Al Shabaab claim that its fighters destroyed two APCs is false, the presence of APCs indicates that an assault from the land side was coordinated with the amphibious operation.

By the end of the day Al Shabaab militiamen continued to hold several positions in the city and still had some vehicles (likely technical vehicles, wheeled vehicles armed with machine guns and rocket launchers). Al Shabaab also maintained control of a radio station (though its exact location is not known). Several fragmentary reports indicated that a battle was occurring on the northern outskirts of Kismayo (the area where the amphibious landing took place). One report said that al Shabaab still controlled the Kismayo airport. AMISOM officials said that they were encouraging the militiamen to surrender rather than fight a battle that would destroy the city and kill civilians caught in the cross-fire. AMISOM has previously claimed that it has been in touch with some Al Shabaab fighters in the city who have expressed an interest in discussing surrender terms. Al Shabaab commanders, however, claimed that their militiamen will fight to the death. (Austin Bay)

September 27, 2012: The Kenyan military said that Kenyan naval vessels had shelled Kismayo’s port facilities and al Shabaab gun emplacements on a jetty in the port. The military also reported that on September 26 Kenyan fighter-bombers attacked a warehouse and an arms dump near Kismayo’s airport. The air attack set off secondary explosions (indicating the bombs hit an ammunition dump as well). A Kenyan official called the attacks “shaping operations” in preparation for a major assault on the port. He added that the naval and air attacks will not stop until AMISOM and pro-Somali government forces take the port. 

September 26, 2012: Somali residents of Mogadishu reported (by cell phone) that unidentified naval vessels fired on a civilian area in Kismayo. Telephone reports by civilians are a primary source of information about combat in Somalia. They are, of course, a very iffy primary source. It is easy for anyone to pose as a civilian and make false claims. However, it is also hard to fake a dozen similar claims. As it is, the Kenyan Navy has been shelling Kismayo on a regular basis.

September 24, 2012: The Kenyan military reported that one of its soldiers had killed six Somali civilians in an incident which occurred in the town of Jana Cabdalla (40 kilometers from Kismayo). The soldier opened fire on the Somalis as they approached his position. The soldier has been arrested. The Kenyan military noted that al Shabaab had launched an attack in the area a short time before the incident. One Kenyan soldier and five civilians were killed in the al Shabaab attack.

September 22, 2012: A contingent of 300 Djibouti peacekeepers serving with AMISOM moved into positions in the town of Beledweyne. The Djiboutians are taking over security duties in the area from Ethiopian Army and Somali government forces.

September 21, 2012: The UN estimated that between 10,000 and 12,000 civilians have left Kismayo since September 1. Around 7,000 of the refugees have fled since September 18. The UN and AMISOM are urging civilians to leave the city as AMISOM forces prepare to attack it. The UN statement came the same day that AMISOM reported some Al Shabaab fighters had been seen leaving Kismayo in vehicles and that the militiamen had told AMISOM they were interested in surrendering to the peacekeeping forces. Al Shabaab immediately disputed the AMISOM statement.

AMISOM confirmed that Kenyan military forces had taken the town of Jana Cabdalla (near Kismayo) from al Shabaab. The Kenyan forces indicated that it will take some time to consolidate their position in Jana Cabdalla.

September 19, 2012: AMISOM now has forces within 30 kilometers from Kismayo. There was a surge of refugees leaving the city. Several of the refugees said they were worried that Al Shabaab militiamen would use them as human shields if they remained in their homes.

September 18, 2012: The Ogaden national Liberation Front (ONLF) Ethiopian rebel group claimed that its elite Eagle (Gorgor) forces had attacked several Ethiopian Army garrisons near the towns of Qabridahar and Degahbour (Ogaden desert region). Ogaden is next to Somalia and the population is largely ethnic Somalis who want the area to be part of Somalia.

 

 

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