Raila Odinga said Tuesday that Kenyan forces are preparing for a "final onslaught" on the Somali port town of Kismayo by August, when the U.N. mandate of Somalia's transitional government expires. Kismayo is controlled by al-Shabab militants who get a significant portion of their operating expenses by levying "taxes" on the port.
Kenyan forces moved into Somalia last October and have been slowly moving toward Kismayo.
"Without controlling Kismayo, it's very difficult to completely neutralize al-Shabab," Odinga told a gathering of foreign correspondents. "It has taken time because our forces felt that to move in otherwise would have cost a lot of lives, both civilian and military."
Odinga said Kenya has asked the U.S. for financial assistance in the operation. He said the U.S. has previously "resisted" providing funds until Kenyan forces formally joined the African Union force known as AMISOM. The formal transfer of Kenyan forces to AMISOM command happened earlier this month.
"I will talk to the U.S. representative this week and they have said they are going to make more funds available for this exercise," Odinga said, adding later: "If they can also bring military assistance so much the better, but for now we are talking about financial assistance."
A U.S. Embassy spokesman said he couldn't immediately comment but would seek more information.
Odinga said Kenya is also asking the European Union Naval Force for help, but that the force is "reluctant." The EU Naval Force recently expanded its mandate to include military attacks on pirate havens on Somali land. However, Kismayo is an al-Shabab stronghold and not a pirate stronghold.
Kenyan troops entered Somalia after a rash of militant attacks on Kenyan soil, including the kidnappings of several foreigners. Hundreds of thousands of Somalis have fled violence and famine in Somalia and now live in Kenya. More than 600,000 Somali refugees live in the Dadaab refugee camp, and Odinga said Kenya hosts 1 million Somali refugees overall.
Odinga said that by constructing roads, schools, housing and health centers in areas of Somalia that have been freed from al-Shabab, the flow of refugees will slow and that some refugees will voluntarily return to Somalia.