Thursday, January 04, 2007

Kenya tightens border with Somalia

MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) -- Kenya sent extra troops to the Somali frontier, stepped up security checks and said it saw no reason for Somalis to flee, underlining fears about Somali Islamic militants slipping across the border after losing a power struggle.

Kenya stopped short of closing the 675-kilometer (400-mile) border Wednesday after troops of Somalia's transitional government and Ethiopian forces routed Islamic militiamen who had controlled most of southern Somalia. Antonio Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said in a statement that neighboring Kenya had a humanitarian obligation to take in civilians at risk.

"Anyone coming to the border has to be screened properly," Kenya's Foreign Affairs Minister Raphael Tuju told journalists in Kenya. "There's no reason at all to allow an influx of people unless there are women and children and it's really, really obvious that they are in danger in their own country. At this particular time, we don't see that danger."

Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi has said he believes major fighting was over. But fighting in recent weeks has displaced hundreds, many of whom have headed toward Kenya, and the Islamic movement has declared itself unbowed. In the southern town of Jilib, a lone gunman shouting "God is great" killed three Ethiopians, including a commanding officer, before another Ethiopian soldier killed him, witnesses said Wednesday.

Government forces have captured two more southern towns from Islamic militants, and were moving to take a third, Defense Minister Col. Barre "Hirale" Aden Shire said in Kismayo.

Three al Qaeda suspects in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa are believed to be leaders of the Somali Islamic movement. Islamic movement leaders deny having any links to al Qaeda.

In Washington Wednesday, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said U.S. Navy vessels were deployed off the Somali coast of Somalia looking for al Qaeda and allied militants trying to escape.

In Brussels, the European Union and Norway called on the government and Islamic militants to hold talks to forge a lasting peace plan that could be backed by African-led peacekeepers.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni planned to fly Thursday to Ethiopia to meet with Prime Minister Meles Zenawi about a peacekeeping mission. Uganda has said it had a 1,000-troop battalion ready to deploy in a few days. Nigeria also has promised troops.

Meles has said his forces cannot afford to stay for long.

Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki told his Somali counterpart Tuesday that his country had strengthened patrols along the border, a statement from the presidential press service said.

A Kenyan police report seen by The Associated Press said that unidentified gunmen fired smalls arms at a Kenyan security helicopter Wednesday from Ras Kamboni, a region at Somalia's southernmost tip where remnants of the Somali Islamic movement were believed holed up. The report did not give further details.

Later Wednesday, two patrolling Kenyan Air Force planes came under fire after flying over an unidentified armored vehicle to observe it, another police report said. One plane was hit and the windscreen damaged, the report said, without giving further details.

A day earlier, four Ethiopian helicopters apparently mistook a Kenyan border post at Harehare for the Somali town of Dhobley, one of the towns the Somali government reported capturing Wednesday, and fired rockets at several small buildings, a security officer said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. There were no reports of casualties, the officer said, adding that Kenyan tanks had been sent to the area.

About 4,000 Somalis were reportedly in the Dhobley area, unable to cross into Kenya, the U.N.'s humanitarian agency said.

UNHCR expressed concern in a statement Wednesday that Kenyan authorities may have forcibly returned Somalis from near Dhobley. UNHCR's Guterres acknowledged that governments had to ensure border security, but said "Kenya also has a humanitarian obligation."

"Most of those in Liboi are women and children, and they should not be sent back to a very uncertain situation," he said.

Kenyan Foreign Minister Tuju said Kenya would enforce a tight screening process as long as the refugees waiting to cross were not in immediate danger.

The Islamic movement had filled a vacuum in a country that has been without effective central government since clan-based warlords overthrew longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. The warlords then turned the country into a chaotic patchwork of armed, clan fiefdoms.

The transitional government was formed in 2004, after two years of talks in neighboring Kenya. It has international recognition, but little military strength, and was riven by clan politics. Two weeks ago it controlled only one town, central Baidoa, while the Islamic movement held the capital and much of southern Somalia.

Ethiopia sent at least 4,000 well-trained troops into Mogadishu on December 24, dramatically changing the government's fortunes.

No comments :