Monday, 17 October 2011

Kenyan forces cross into Somalia to hunt kidnappers

In a significant escalation, Kenyan army units have crossed into Somalia to hunt for the kidnappers of two aid workers seized from a refugee camp on the border.

The two Medecins Sans Frontieres workers were kidnapped on 13th October by gunman and taken back into Somalia. The Kenyan government has repeatedly tried to seal off the border, which is regularly crossed by thousands of refugees fleeing Somalia's fighting and the country's drought.

Militants from Al-Shabab, which controls much of central and southern Somalia, are believed to have infiltrated the flow of refugees and have also fought along the border to recapture territory held by pro-government militias.

Previously the Kenyan military has focused on sealing the border, only launching brief raids into border regions of Somalia, but the intervention which began on 17th October appears to be on a much bigger scale. Hundreds of troops backed by tanks, artillery and helicopters have moved into Somalia. According to local residents, Al-Shabab units in the area have been forcibly recruiting locals to boost their numbers in a demonstration that they are preparing to fight.

The kidnapping of the aid workers was the trigger for the incursion, but for some time the Kenyan authorities have been concerned by the porous border situation and the ease with which Al-Shabab has managed to cross into Kenya, recruiting among refugees or kidnapping Westerners. The deployment of so much heavy weaponry indicates that freeing the hostages will come second to a punitive raid on Al-Shabab forces.

Kenyan officials have been blunt. Kenya's Internal Security Minister George Saitoti said that “Our territorial integrity is threatened with serious security threats of terrorism, we cannot allow this to happen at all.”

Saitoti also said that the government is sealing the border with Somalia, although this would be almost impossible to do effectively. For its part, Somalia's weak Transitional Federal Government (TFG) has denied that Kenyan forces have entered Somalia, stressing that although they welcomed Kenyan support they did not require military assistance.

Officials in Kenya and elsewhere would disagree. Although TFG forces backed by African Union peacekeepers have driven Al-Shabab out of most of Mogadishu in recent weeks, the militants still control vast swathes of the country and are more than a match for the TFG's underfunded and poorly-trained forces.

The extent and duration of the Kenyan intervention remains to be seen, but it demonstrates that the border situation continues to provoke regional instability.

Sources: BBC, AFP, AllAfrica

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