MOGADISHU, Somalia: Hundreds of residents have fled the southern Somali port of Kismayo after the Kenyan navy shelled the town ahead of an expected ground operation to capture it, officials and residents said Tuesday.
Kismayo is the main remaining stronghold of the al-Qaida-linked militants of al-Shabab. The group, considered terrorists by the United States and others, is waging an insurgency against the U.N.-backed Somali government, which is being bolstered by African Union troops including Kenyan forces.
Residents say the militants have ordered them not leave Kismayo, but the prospect of being caught in a war between the militants and the Kenyan forces is outweighing whatever brutal punishment they could get for disobeying.
Kenyan military spokesman Col. Cyrus Oguna said seven people believed to be members of al-Shabab were killed in shelling Saturday and Monday that targeted an arms cache, a mounted gun position and a militant roadblock.
Oguna said Kenyan ground troops were moving closer to Kismayo - they are now just 90 kilometers (56 miles) away - in preparation for a military assault.
Afrah Hussein, an elder in Kismayo, said hundreds of residents have fled.
"There was a gradual flood in recent days, but today more than 200 people left," he said Tuesday. "People are being forced to stay in the town but it seems they are paying no heed to that because of their fears of war."
Another resident agreed.
"We are fleeing because combat ships are coming in sight of the town and troops are on the way," said Mohamed Ali, who was heading to the town of Barawe to the east. "We don't want to get caught between warring sides - it's a confusing and scary situation out there."
Muhummed Ghelle, another Kismayo elder, said "everyone is sneaking away for his safety - people started to leave here a week ago."
Those fleeing have mostly streamed into Jilib, a town north of Kismayo, but some have traveled to Merca, an eastern town recently seized by government troops, Ghelle said.
Kenyan commanders had earlier vowed to take Kismayo by August but officials said the plan was bogged down by the need to take care of people in the towns already liberated from al-Shabab.
Last week, Kenyan troops took over the town of Miido, north of Kismayo.
The Ugandan military forms the bulk of the African Union forces in Somalia. Ugandan and Burundian forces pushed al-Shabab out of Mogadishu, the capital, about a year ago. Kenya and Burundi have also dispatched troops to fight al-Shabab, which neighboring countries view as a regional threat.
Somalia has not had a fully functioning government since clan-based warlords toppled dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, but slow progress is being made. A new constitution has come into force, a new parliament and speaker were recently chosen and they are to vote in a new president by Sept. 10.