Thousands of Somalis have been trained in Kenya and are ready to join a Somali government offensive against rebels in the failed Horn of Africa state who have vowed loyalty to al Qaeda, security sources told Reuters.
The international community and neighbouring countries are increasingly worried about the broader threat posed by hardline al Shabaab insurgents who control large amounts of territory and are battling the nation’s fragile UN-backed government.
Kenya has twice been hit by al-Qaeda linked attacks and while it cannot take part in the African Union peacekeeping in Somalia because it is a neighbour, the government has pledged to do what it can to prevent the chaos next door spreading.
One former member of the Kenyan military contracted to train the Somali recruits in northestern Kenya said 2500 troops just needed to complete their final assessments before deployment.
“The training has been successful, tough. Some recruits were unable to cope. They left us with a strong team,” the instructor told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
“They’ve been trained on combat skills, fire and manoeuvre, weaponry and general endurance to hardships by exposure to the rough terrain,” said the instructor Kenyan Defence Minister Yusuf Haji told Reuters in December during a visit to Isiolo that the government was training Somalis both in Samburu and on the coast.
“Kenya has an obligation as any other member of the African Union to assist any other member country. We agreed and offered to train Somali security forces,” he said.
The training has been taking place some 60 km (40 miles) from Isiolo near the Samburu wildlife reserve in an area also used by British forces for exercises.
More troops for AMISOM
Western security agencies say Somalia has become a safe haven for militants, including foreign jihadists, who use it to plot attacks in the region and beyond.
Fighting there has killed at least 21 000 people since the start of 2007.
For weeks, President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed’s administration has been promising to launch an offensive against al Shabaab and another insurgent group, Hizbul Islam, which both want to impose a harsh version of sharia law.
The other part of the Somali government’s plan to drive back the insurgents includes beefing up AMISOM, the African Union’s (AU) peacekeeping force in the capital Mogadishu.
It now boasts more than 5000 soldiers from Uganda and Burundi who are frequently attacked by the rebels and have been able to do little more than secure the city’s air and sea ports, its presidential palace and few strategic blocks in between.
At an AU summit in Ethiopia yesterday, Djibouti said it would send 450 troops to join AMISOM soon.
Two AU security sources and a Ugandan official told Reuters that Uganda and Burundi expected to deploy an additional battalion of about 850 soldiers each soon, following training in Djibouti. No official confirmation was immediately available.
A spokesman for al Shabaab, which declared its loyalty to al Qaeda this week, warned that Djiboutian troops would face dire consequences if they joined the fray on the side of peacekeepers the rebels denounce as Christian “invaders”.
Kenya has also boosted security on its porous desert border with Somalia ahead of the expected offensive.
Kenyan security sources said hundreds more Kenyan troops and artillery had been moved to the frontier due to concerns that fighting might prompt Somali rebels, and the foreign militants in their ranks, to try and enter Kenya.
Tensions are growing in the drought-ridden region, where jobs are scarce and both Somalia’s warring factions have been trawling Kenyan villages, seeking to recruit young gunmen.
Pic: al- Shabaab rebels