Kenyan troops push into rebel-held Somalia

Kenyan troops pushed deep into Somalia on Monday to hunt al-Qaeda-linked fighters blamed for a spate of kidnappings, in an unprecedented move that raised fears of a regional escalation.

Backed by aerial bombings and guided by pro-government Somali forces, Kenyan troops moved deeper into southern Somalia, a day after Nairobi declared war on the al-Shabaab militia and confirmed that it had sent its army across the border.

Kenyan soldiers were reported near the village of Qoqani, some 85km inside southern Somalia, an al-Shabaab stronghold.

“The Kenyan troops supported by tanks and other military vehicles have taken up positions near Qoqani,” said Saleban Mohamed, an elder in a nearby village.

“I saw around 32 trucks and tanks, with hundreds of troops,” he added.

In the trenches
“The Kenyan soldiers are heavily armed and they have started digging trenches near Qoqani,” Abdulahi Sayid Adam, another witness said.

Kenya confirmed Sunday its forces has crossed the border into war-torn Somalia to fight hardline al-Shabaab forces they accuse of kidnapping foreigners, provoking a grim warning from the insurgents.

“Kenya violated the territorial rights of Somalia by entering our holy land, but I assure you that they will return disappointed, God willing,” Sheikh Hassan Turki, a senior al-Shabaab leader, said late on Sunday.

“Mujahideen fighters will force them to test the pain of the bullets.”

Al-Shabaab fighters were reported on Monday to be boosting defences and sending “hundreds” of fighters towards Kenyan and government positions.

Convoy spotted
“I saw around 50 trucks and pickup trucks mounted with machine guns, with hundreds of fighters heading towards the Kenyan border,” Abdi Jumale, a resident in the al-Shabaab-held port of Kismayo told Agence France-Presse by telephone.

Al-Shabaab commanders confiscated at least a hundred trucks late Sunday from the Lower Shabelle region, outside the capital Mogadishu, to transport gunmen southwards towards the battle zones, witnesses said.

“Many trucks were taken by al-Shabaab from civilians to transport fighters, they are heading towards the Juba regions,” a witness in al-Shabaab-held Afgoye district told AFP, asking not to be named for security reasons.

“They have collected all weapons near Afgoye, and gathered hundreds of young fighters to face their enemy,” another witness said.

“They were addressing the fighters and said that new enemy has crossed into Somalia border,” he added.

Chopper crash
Five Kenyan soldiers died when their military helicopter providing air cover for ground troops crashed late on Sunday due to reported “technical problems” near Liboi, just inside Kenya’s border, army spokesperson Emmanuel Chirchir said.

The assault came after Kenya’s Internal Security Minister George Saitoti vowed to attack the al-Shabaab “wherever they will be”.

In the past five weeks a British woman and a French woman have been abducted from beach resorts in two separate incidents, dealing a major blow to Kenya’s tourism industry.

On Thursday, two female Spanish aid workers were seized by gunmen from Kenya’s crowded Dada’ab refugee camp, the world’s largest with some 450 000 mainly Somali refugees.

It was unclear how long Kenyan troops planned to stay in Somalia but Nairobi was under growing pressure to take action and attempt to restore confidence that it could safely host tourists and one of the world’s largest aid communities.

Kenyan incursion
The al-Shabaab had long refrained from carrying out attacks inside Kenya, which observers argued was useful to them as a logistical and financial base.

While Kenya troops have frequently been reported to have crossed the long porous border in recent years, Nairobi never confirmed any involvement and was always cautious to minimise its exposure to reprisals.

In July 2010, the al-Shabaab group claimed responsibility for suicide attacks in central Kampala that killed at least 76 people in what it said was retaliation for Uganda’s leading role in the Mogadishu-based African peace force.

The al-Shabaab had repeatedly warned similar attacks would target any regional power sending forces to support the Western-backed Somali government.

The last time a neighbouring country unilaterally invaded Somalia was in 2006 when Ethiopia, also claiming it was acting self-defence, sent in thousands of troops to counter the rise of an Islamist movement that had taken power in Mogadishu and of which the al-Shabaab are an offshoot.—Sapa

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