Five Kenyan soldiers died on Sunday when their helicopter crashed after takeoff near the border with Somalia, as Kenya launched an operation to tackle Somali militants.
Military spokesman Major Emmanuel Chirchir said that the helicopter came down at 7:55 pm on Sunday in Loboi in Kenya’s North Eastern province, around 14 kilometres from the border with Somalia.
Chirchir said the crash was caused by a mechanical malfunction. Witnesses said two helicopters landed at a base near Liboi primary school but whilst taking off one crashed and caught fire. Another witness said the helicopter flew at high speed from Somalia, suddenly landed at Liboi and then crashed.
It’s not yet clear what model of helicopter crashed. Kenya’s Defence Forces have several dozen Hughes 500 helicopters as well as a dozen Aerospatiale SA-330 Pumas, eight Harbin Z-9s and two Mi-171s (a third crashed on April 5 this year) in service.
Kenya’s military stormed across the border on Sunday to support Somali government troops in an attempt to secure the frontier and its hinterland. The operation follows a wave of kidnappings by suspected militants that have threatened the East African country’s multi-million dollar tourism industry.
Last Thursday two female Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) staff were abducted in daytime from Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp, located about 80 km (50 miles) from Liboi in the third attack on Westerners in a little over a month. Somali militant groub al Shabaab has said it is not behind the abduction of the MSF staff from world’s largest refugee camp.
Chirchir said that Kenya’s aircraft are involved in the operation and there are reports of air strikes against al Shabaab positions. “In terms of injuries, the first attack saw the death of 73 al Shabaab,” Chirchir said, adding that the only Kenyan deaths were the five killed in the helicopter crash.
Keen to avoid a spillover of violence by al Qaeda-trained foreign jihadists seeking haven in Somalia as well as al Shabaab rebels entrenched in the south, Nairobi has considered creating a buffer zone along its border.
Kenya has already trained thousands of newly recruited Somali soldiers to man the frontier. It also provides logistical and intelligence support to Somali government troops and government-friendly militia.
Al Shabaab’s bloody campaign since early 2007 to topple a Somali government it sees as a stooge of the West has killed tens of thousands of people. The group wants to impose a strict version of sharia law on the nation and more hardline factions are bent on striking Somalia’s neighbours.
Kenya’s military intervention could raise the risk of a rebel strike on Kenyan interests. The militants have in the past threatened attacks on Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, in retaliation for Kenya’s training and support of Somalia’s army and allied militia.