Kenya has increased security on its porous desert border with Somalia ahead of an expected offensive by government forces there that could prompt hardline Islamist rebels to try and cross the frontier.
Al Shabaab insurgents who declared their loyalty to al Qaeda this week and want to impose a harsh version of sharia law on the Horn of Africa state, have controlled several small towns on the Somali side of the border since late last year.
Tensions are growing in the drought-ridden region, where jobs are scarce and both of Somalia’s warring factions have been trawling Kenyan villages, seeking to recruit young fighters. “We have deployed more troops and increased patrols along the border because the threat from the other side is higher now,” Winston Murungi, district commissioner of Lagdera, told Reuters in an interview near the border.
Somalia has not had an effective government in almost two decades, and the Western-backed administration of President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed controls little more than a few strategic blocks in the coastal capital Mogadishu. Fearing the threat from weapons and narcotics traffickers, as well as the heavily armed militias allied to warlords, Kenya officially closed the 680-km border back in 2007.
But it has allowed thousands of refugees from Somalia to enter and live in sprawling refugee camps at Dadaab, where there are more than 260,000 mostly Somali inhabitants. The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said it had registered 2,730 refugees in January — lower than last year’s average of 5,000 a month.
But that could be about to change with the start of a long-promised offensive by Somali government forces against the al Shabaab rebels and other Islamist insurgent groups. Arriving at Ifo refugee camp, one of three that comprise the Dadaab settlement, Mohamed Nur, a Somali from Buale in the south of the country, said he entered Kenya at Dakalema border post.
“There is only al Shabaab there. There is no Kenyan police,” he said as he cradled his toddler son in his arms. The proximity of the rebels to the border, and the suspected presence of some of them inside Kenya itself, is making work much harder for aid agencies trying to help people in the area.
Some have banned foreign staff from visiting areas where they could be kidnapped, while imposing tougher restrictions on movement for those who are allowed to visit the region. “We are concerned that the risk of our staff being kidnapped in northeastern Kenya is now very high … between the areas of Wajir and Moyale we have restricted unescorted movement,” said Nick Wasunna, World Vision’s spokesman for Kenya. “There is information that al Shabaab could be in the area.”
Violence, threats and increasing extortion by al Shabaab fighters forced the U.N.’s World Food Programme to suspend its work in much of southern Somalia this month. Last November, the insurgents issued a string of tough conditions for any humanitarian agencies wanting to operate in the south.
Now there are fears that Somalia’s lawlessness could spread across the border to Kenya along with the new flood of Somali civilians who would likely flee as a result of more fighting. “There are very many guns in the region in the wrong hands, and that is why we are taking maximum security precautions,” Emmanuel Nyabera, the UNHCR spokesman for Kenya, told Reuters.
Pic: Paramilitary Kenyan police on patrol
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