Kenyan military lists 10 Somali towns as targets for air strikes including port town of Kismayo, an al-Shabaab stronghold.
People in towns across Somalia were reportedly trying to flee their homes on Wednesday, after Kenya's military said it was planning air strikes on Islamist rebel camps in the next few days.
Residents in 10 towns listed by the Kenyan military as possible targets for air strikes – which include the port town of Kismayo, an al-Shabaab stronghold, Baidoa, Afmadow and Afgoye, near Mogadishu – said they were fleeing.
Others said militants from al-Shabaab, which is linked to al-Qaida and fighting the weak Somali government, would not let them leave.
"[Al-Shabaab] ordered us to stay and die at the hands of Christian Kenya, to dwell in paradise," Abdikadir Weydow, a resident of the southern town of Afmadow, which is an al-Shabaab stronghold, told Reuters.
Others, in a country that has become a byword for anarchy since warlords overthrew a military dictator in 1991, simply could not leave their homes.
"The roads are muddy and I am with my aged parents who cannot travel," Reuters quoted Filsan Osman as saying by telephone from Baidoa, about 170 miles from the capital Mogadishu. "We have to turn a deaf ear to Kenya's air strike [warning] come what may."
Al-Shabaab, which means "youth" in Arabic, controls large areas of southern Somalia, where it has imposed a harsh form of sharia law.
The rebels have carried out beheadings and cross-amputations, and are also blamed for hampering relief efforts for hundreds of thousands of Somalis facing hunger because of this year's severe drought.
Kenyan troops crossed into Somalia in mid-October to push the rebels away from the country's borders. Kenya blames the militants for a series of kidnappings and cross-border incursions that have threatened its security and lucrative tourism industry.
Military spokesman Major Emmanuel Chirchir used Twitter to warn residents on Tuesday that 10 towns across Somalia would be "under attack continuously" in an effort to destroy weapons flown into the country this week.
The proposed air strikes would mark a new level in Kenya's military engagement. J Peter Pham, director of the Africa programme at the Atlantic Council in Washington, warned that the strikes, which he described as a blunt instrument, could strengthen al-Shabaab.
"Even if the intent is not to cause civilian deaths, there will be civilian casualties, which will further the Shabaab narrative of them as defenders of Somali territory.
They are likely to inflame local tensions but also possibly within the large Somali community in Kenya and [among] others who identify with the Islamist cause of Shabaab abroad," he said.
Kenyan newspapers alleged that the weapons reportedly flown into Somalia this week came from Eritrea, the Red Sea state that has previously been accused of supporting al-Shabaab. Kenya has not said officially where the weapons came from. Eritrea denied the allegations.
"The government of Eritrea states categorically that these accusations are pure fabrications and outright lies as Eritrea has not sent any arms to Somalia," Eritrea's foreign ministry said in a rare statement.
A UN monitoring group said in a report in July that Eritrea was funding al-Shabaab. Eritrea's arch-foe, Ethiopia, supports Somalia's Transitional Federal Government.
A strategic Kenyan objective is to capture Kismayo, which is a key supply route and source of funds for the rebels.
Kenya and Somalia have called on the international community to provide logistical and financial support to blockade the port.
However, Pham said it was unclear whether Kenya would be able to achieve its military aims, despite being one of Africa's better armies.
He pointed out that Kenya's best-equipped battalion was on peacekeeping duties in Sudan.
"The numbers we are seeing of troops committed to the incursion are possibly as high as 4,000, not all from across the border.
They are actually outnumbered by the loose Shabaab alliances … the notion that several thousand Kenyans could achieve the limited objective of carving out a defensible buffer zone … it's delusional," he said.
Chanzo: The Guardian la Uingereza