Kenyan forces are planning to carry out air strikes on Islamist rebel camps in southern and central Somalia and destroy weapons, according Kenyan military officials this week.
Military spokesperson Major Emmanuel Chirchir used Twitter to warn residents of 10 Somali towns that they would be “under attack continuously”.
He said that residents should stay away from al-Shabaab camps in the towns because Kenyan forces, which crossed the border into Somalia in mid-October to battle the militants, would be attacking soon.
The locations included the port town of Kismayo, an al-Shabaab stronghold, Baidoa, Afmadow and Afgoye, near the capital Mogadishu.
Chirchir said two consignments of weapons had been flown into Baidoa, 270 kilometres north-west of Mogadishu.
He said he did not know where the weapons came from but that they were destined for the southern frontline where Kenyan and Somali government forces, as well as allied militias, were trying to push al-Shabaab forces from the territory they controlled.
“If it is confirmed that a particular [al-Shabaab] camp has received those weapons, we’ll get there,” he said.
“We are asking the people of Somalia to avoid being close to al-Shabaab, especially the camps.”
Several civilians were killed on Sunday during a Kenyan air strike on the town of Jilib in southern Somalia.
The Kenyan military said the deaths were caused when rebels drove a vehicle with an anti-aircraft gun, which had been hit in the bombardment, into a camp for displaced people, where it exploded. An investigation is underway.
Kenya wants to push al-Shabaab, which is linked to al-Qaeda and is fighting the weak Somali government, away from its borders. It blames the militants for a series of kidnappings and cross-border incursions that threaten Kenyan security and its lucrative tourism industry.
Some of the towns listed by Chirchir were north of the area into which Kenyan forces were advancing. Chirchir said Kenyan forces would co-ordinate their actions with the 9 000-strong African Union Mission in Somalia force stationed in Mogadishu.
A strategic Kenyan objective was to capture Kismayo, which was a key supply route and source of funds for the rebels. Kenya and the Somali government called on the international community to provide logistical and financial support to blockade the port as they attempted to force out al-Shabaab.
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 amputations, and have been blamed for hampering relief efforts for hundreds of thousands of Somalis facing hunger because of this year’s severe drought.
A Guardian investigation revealed that al-Qaeda operatives were distributing aid and cash to drought victims in southern Somalia.
International aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières said this week that the numbers of Somalis fleeing to neighbouring Ethiopia had risen sharply and that the capacity to deliver aid needed to be increased rapidly.
Meanwhile, men claiming to be from al-Qaeda are moving into the humanitarian vacuum in Somalia and, in a first for the group, distributing aid and cash to drought victims.
On a visit to the Ala-Yasir camp in the south of the country, the Guardian saw the men handing out money, rice, flour, oil, dates and milk as well as Islamic books and clothes to people made destitute by this year’s drought.
Al-Shabaab introduced the group’s leader as a white American, Abu Abdullah al-Muhajir.
Reading from a prepared statement, in American-accented English, al-Muhajir told the refugees that his group was following their situation on a daily basis.
“And, though we are separated by thousands of kilometres, you are consistently in our thoughts and prayers.”
He then handed out about $17 000 in Somali shillings. The al-Qaeda group, which brought a fully staffed ambulance with them, was thought to see young Somali men as potential recruits.
Osman Hassan, clutching dates, milk and the Qur’an — gifts from al-Qaeda — said he prayed for al-Qaeda to win over its enemies.
After a decade-long war in eastern Afghanistan, the concern is that al-Qaeda may be able to regroup in Somalia, which has had no functioning central government for more than two decades. —