Kenya’s advance in Somalia surprises US officials

MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — Kenyan troops surprised U.S. officials by entering Somalia last weekend, even though the U.S. had urged Kenya to take measures to improve security along its border with Somalia following a spate of kidnappings, officials said Thursday.

One U.S. official said that the Americans had not been informed before hundreds of Kenyan troops rolled over the border, pushing 60 miles into Somalia. Kenya is a close American ally and the Kenyan military receives substantial training and funding from the U.S.

Another official said that the U.S. had been pushing Kenya to improve its border security after Somali gunmen kidnapped four foreigners from Kenyan soil in the past six weeks. One elderly French hostage has died and the husband of a British woman was killed when she was carried off.

The U.S. official in Nairobi who is familiar with security operations but not authorized to speak to the press told The Associated Press Thursday that the U.S. has been pressuring Kenya to “do something” because Kenya’s response to the deteriorating security situation before has been “pathetic.”

He said he was not sure if the U.S. knew that Kenya would make a military move in Somalia, but that it shouldn’t have come as too big of a suprise because of the U.S. pressure. But a third U.S. official said that did not mean the U.S. had encouraged Kenya to enter Somalia. All of the officials spoke on condition of anonymity.

A military spokesman said Kenya’s force will stay in Somalia until the insurgency is defeated.

But Kenya’s troops are untested and it isn’t clear they are prepared for a long-term occupation requiring counterinsurgency skills — a scenario that ended U.S. and Ethiopian interventions during Somalia’s 20-year-old civil war. The Somalia operation is Kenya’s biggest foreign military commitment since independence in 1963.

On Thursday, fierce fighting in Mogadishu claimed the lives of at least 10 peacekeepers and dozens of government soldiers. Al-Shabab fighters displayed dozens of bodies which they said were African Union peacekeepers but it was unclear if some of them might be government troops. Eyewitness Ali Abdullahi Nor said he counted 54 bodies.

An AU official said that 10 soldiers had been killed and 30 wounded, and fighting was still continuing on Thursday night. He asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

Unless Somalia overcomes the conditions that helped create al-Shabab — corruption, insecurity and a lack of social services — a similar group could rise even if al-Shabab was defeated.

Al-Shabab’s forerunner, the Islamic Courts Union, was widely welcomed when it took power in 2006 because it provided security and had a relative lack of corruption, said Roger Middleton, a Somalia expert researcher at London-based think tank Chatham House.

But al-Shabab — formed from the extreme youth wing of the union — has lost a lot of support, partly due to its mishandling of a famine that has cost tens of thousands of lives in its drought-stricken southern strongholds. The group refused many aid agencies permission to operate and levied extortionate taxes on impoverished farmers and herdsmen.

The militia also carries out public amputations, beheadings and stonings, Middleton said.

“But, there’s a good chance that foreign military intervention in Somalia could serve as a lightning rod for opposition that could coalesce around al-Shabab,” he said.

Somalis had overcome clan divisions to unite against the U.N. and U.S. troops in 1993 and to fight Ethiopians after they invaded in 2006, he said. Kenya is a mostly Christian nation, and Somalia overwhelmingly Muslim — something al-Shabab propagandists have already seized on.

The current Somali government is limited to the capital, entirely dependent on foreign support and has shown little inclination to provide services or tackle theft by officials. Starving parents from the countryside camp with their skeletal children under plastic sheets even as businessmen openly steal and sell foreign food aid.

The United States now funds a 9,000-strong African Union peacekeeping force and pays Somali government troops battling the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab militia. But African Union and government operations are mostly limited to the capital, a devastated seaside city of smashed buildings and potholed streets that they almost fully control.

A Nairobi-based diplomat said Kenya has appealed several times for U.S. assistance on the intervention, but that it appears the U.S. worries that the plan has not been fully thought out and may compete with the efforts of the U.N.-backed government in Mogadishu. The diplomat asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

The Kenyans have met little resistance since sending in forces. They have penetrated about 60 miles (100 kilometers) into Somalia but al-Shabab still has bases near the border. Kenyan troops and a pro-government Somali militia rolled into the southern town of Ras Kamboni, 2 miles (3 kilometers) from the Kenya-Somalia border, on Thursday morning, residents said.

The town has great historical resonance: it was used as a training ground by the al-Itihad al-Islam group in the 1980s, and it was the scene of the Islamic Courts Union’s last stand in 2007, when they were chased from power by Ethiopian troops. It is also the clan base of many of the fighters in the pro-government ’Jubaland’ militia, recruited and trained by Kenya.

“Kenyan troops and other soldiers arrived here in the morning today after planes flew overheard for hours,” said town elder Mohamud Sanyare. “Some people are happy and some maybe not happy. Some of the soldiers arrived here are the sons of families living here and so they welcomed them.”

Soldiers were doing foot patrols and searching houses, he said.

“We are going to be there until the (Somali government) has effectively reduced the capacity of al-Shabab to fire a single round ... We want to ensure there is no al-Shabab,” Kenyan military spokesman Maj. Emmanuel Chirchir told The Associated Press. “We want to destroy all their weapons.”

“This provides a vantage point for us to clear al-Shabab and pirates from the Somali coast in Kismayo,” Chirchir said. “Al-Shabab is in disarray.”

His words were the clearest statement yet of Kenya’s intentions. Initially the East African nation said it was pursuing Somali gunmen who have attacked and abducted foreigners from Kenyan territory. Two Spanish aid workers, a cancer-stricken quadriplegic Frenchwoman and an Englishwoman have all been seized in the past six weeks.

But analysts say such a complex operation in Somalia would have taken Kenya far longer to plan, and was sparked by Kenyan fears about instability from Somalia spilling over the border. On Thursday, Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki confirmed that there would be an internal crackdown against suspected al-Shabab operatives.

“Our security forces have begun operations within and outside of our borders against militants who have sought to destabilize our country,” he said.

Some Muslim and Kenyan-Somali leaders have said they fear their communities may be unfairly targeted.

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