By Boniface Ongeri in Liboi and David Ochami in Nairobi
Kenyan troops were by Monday evening moving quickly to secure the town of Afmadow in Somalia, 100 kilometres from the border.
It comes just two days after the Kenyan armed forces captured another key town, Qoqani, following two days of heavy aerial and ground bombardment. Afmadow is the town where two Kenyan soldiers, Evan Mutoro and Jonathan Kangogo, captured by Al-Shabaab militia on July 24, were detained before being taken by their captors to the coastal town of Kismayu. The two soldiers are still unaccounted for.
“The Kenyan troops supported by tanks and other military vehicles have taken up positions near Qoqani,” Saleban Mohamed, an elder in a nearby village, told AFP news agency.
“I saw around 32 trucks and tanks, with hundreds of troops,” he added.
Military helicopter. Government says it is in Somalia for the long haul vowing to fight Al-Shabaab to the end. Photo: File/Standard
“The Kenyan soldiers are heavily armed and they have started digging trenches near Qoqani,” Abdulahi Sayid Adam, another witness said.
But there was some sad news after a military helicopter exploded seconds after take off from Liboi Airstrip in Garissa, killing five soldiers including the pilot.
Department of Defence officials blamed the crash on a technical fault. The soldiers, a major, a sergeant, two privates and a technician were killed when their China-made Dolphine helicopter crashed and caught fire, military sources told The Standard.
“It crashed while taking off and caught fire, all the five soldiers on board died. It was not brought down,” said Military Spokesman Major Emmanuel Chirchir.
The soldiers were reportedly taking missiles to the war front inside Somalia when the incident occurred, the source said.
The helicopter exploded about 500 metres from Liboi Airstrip.
Kenya continued to flex its aerial prowess as it rained bombs on strategic Al-Shabaab strongholds, pushing its assault deeper toward central Somalia. At the same time, the Government announced it was ready to fight Al-Shabaab to its logical conclusion, adding that the military offensive against the terror group, dubbed “Operation Linda Nchi” (Operation Protect Kenya) would continue until the militia are subdued.
Kenyan troops combed villages in Somalia in hot pursuit of the militia with armoured vehicles, as its fighter jets overflew the enemy’s territory.
Witnesses said they saw dozens of Kenyan military vehicles pouring over the border, backed by planes and helicopters even as reports said Al-Shabaab, which denies kidnapping Kenyans and foreigners, had amassed more men to back up its militia in Afmadow where they were being pinned down by the heavy firepower of the Kenya army and air force.
Quoting witnesses, AFP reported that Al-Shabaab commanders confiscated at least 100 trucks late Sunday from the Lower Shabelle region, outside the capital Mogadishu, to transport gunmen southwards.
Internal Security minister Prof George Saitoti and Defence minister Mohammed Yusuf Haji said military operations against Al-Shabaab would be sustained until “desired effects” are achieved, blaming the group for a spate of kidnappings, sea piracy and killings of Kenyans and foreigners.
Foreign Affairs minister Moses Wetang’ula said troops went across the border on the request of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which controls very little territory, but is backed by the international community.
“What we are doing is in pursuit of a request by the Government of Somalia, and also our own interest as a country to fight a group that is terror-based,” said Wetang’ula.
By “desired effects”, the ministers implied that Kenya’s military hopes to degrade Al-Shabaab’s capacity to launch cross-border attacks on land and in the Indian Ocean.
They justified that attacks on Al-Shabaab inside Somalia are legitimate self-defence acts to protect lives and the economy in accordance with the UN charter and international law.
Defence Minister Haji said that Kenyan police and military forces will pursue the Somalia extremist group in its bases in the centre and south of the war-torn country to eliminate immediate security threats near the border and protect shipping lines in the Indian Ocean from pirates who operate with support of the terror group.
Saitoti declared the operation a legitimate response of self-defence against “a chronology of provocation by Al-Shabaab.”
The two spoke after meeting Parliament’s Defence and Foreign Relations Committee to discuss the operation.
Saitoti enumerated a host of abductions of Kenyans and foreigners, which he blamed on Al-Shabaab and said the Government received intelligence that the extremist militia “continued to recruit Kenyans into its ranks.”
He said Al-Shabaab shelled a Kenyan security post near Liboi last month and was responsible for landmines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) found in Mandera in July. On September 8, Al-Shabaab claimed to hold two Kenyan officers in Kismayu, a coastal city in the Indian Ocean, after initially detaining them in Afmadow.
Haji did not name a third soldier in his account but said the two were abducted after “their vehicle broke down and they were sent to seek assistance.”
Saitoti said under Article 51 of the UN Charter, Kenyan forces will engage in security and military operations in “self-defence” and geared to “preventing aggression”.
The minister said Kenya would step up aerial border surveillance and provide armed escorts to locals, tourists and expatriates.
Haji said that besides abducting the two soldiers, Al-Shabaab had tried to attack the port of Mombasa and ambush ships off the Kenyan coast in September.
The Defence minister said that lately, Al-Shabaab was acting in concert with pirates and had attacked vessels entering Kenyan waters.
In what appeared to be a well-calculated and aptly prepared military assault, more troops were lined up in strategic positions as aerial and ground combat forces launched missiles in the open sandy grounds of Somalia and hideouts of the terrorists. Kenya’s disciplined officers will be backing TFG forces in a bid to find a lasting solution to instability in the country that has been at war for two decades.
Maj Chirchir also confirmed that the chopper was part of a contingent of military personnel and hardware that had been deployed to pursue Al-Shabaab militia following insecurity on the Kenya-Somalia border.
The five are the first casualties Kenya has suffered in the onslaught against the militants in Somalia that heightened when they kidnapped two Spanish aid workers.
Kenya has military bases in Wajir, Liboi and Hulugho. GSU personnel are also at hand to support the army.
- Additional reporting by Cyrus Ombati