NAIROBI - Forces battling Somalia's Islamist fighters pressed their advance on the key insurgent bastion of Kismayo, officials said Tuesday, as thousands of civilians fled the expected upcoming assault.
Kenyan troops with the 17,000-strong African Union force, fighting alongside Somali militia forces opposed to the Al-Qaeda linked Shebab, have moved some 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the southern Somali port city.
"The Shebab are in their last throes," said Kenyan army spokesman Cyrus Oguna, adding that Kenyan frontline troops were now holding the village of Jan Abdala, northwest of Kismayo.
Kenya's navy are also patrolling offshore from the town -- with a population of up to 193,000 people, according to the United Nations -- and have fired on the port in recent weeks.
"The assault on Kismayo will comprise of ground, air and naval forces," Oguna added. "We do not have a specific date for marching on Kismayo, but it will be soon."
Shebab fighters had also stopped broadcasts on their Radio Andalus, Oguna added, although the extremist group had dismissed reports their gunmen were fleeing ahead of the advance.
"The pressure they are facing is so immense that they have been forced to dismantle their main mouthpiece Radio Andalus," he said.
But the Shebab are putting up stiff resistance to the troops, Oguna added, slowing progress as the soldiers check for hidden improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
"The Shebab are doing everything in their power to delay the progress of our forces including lining the roads with IEDs and snipers," he said. "But we can handle whatever they throw at us."
Witnesses in Kismayo reported the sound of artillery fire outside the town on Monday, but Shebab commander Sheikh Abdallah Mohamed said his forces had pushed back Somali and Kenyan troops.
UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, warned Tuesday that "more and more people are fleeing their homes in Kismayo". Over 4,400 people have left since the beginning of September, it said, with the "numbers expected to rise fast".
Oguna said the AU force had asked civilians to leave areas before they pushed forward.
"We have asked civilians -- not only in Kismayo but in other areas we were marching through -- to leave for their own protection," Oguna added.
"We want to limit collateral damage since the Shebab are known to use civilians as human shields."
Kismayo has been a long-term goal of Kenyan forces ever since they invaded last October, but reaching it has taken longer than initially estimated.