KENYAN troops and tanks have crossed the border into war-torn Somalia to attack Islamist al-Shabab rebels accused of kidnapping foreigners, who in turn have warned Kenya its soldiers face the “pain of bullets”.
“We have crossed into Somalia in pursuit of al-Shabab, who are responsible for the kidnappings and attacks on our country,” government spokesman Alfred Matua said yesterday.
The al-Qa’ida linked al-Shabab offered Kenya a grim warming.
“Kenya violated the territorial rights of Somalia by entering our holy land, but I assure you that they will return disappointed, God willing,” said Sheikh Hassan Turki, a senior leader.
“Mujahideen fighters will force them to test the pain of the bullets.”
The assault comes a day after Kenya’s Internal Security Minister George Saitoti branded al-Shabab fighters “the enemy” and vowed to attack them “wherever they will be”.
On Thursday, two female Spanish aid workers were seized by gunmen from Kenya’s crowded Dadaab refugee camp, the world’s largest with some 450,000 mainly Somali refugees.
An AFP reporter close to the border witnessed large numbers of troops, as well as military planes and helicopters overhead, while truckloads of soldiers were reported to be heading towards the frontier.
“I saw several armoured vehicles, including four tanks and trucks with Kenyan soldiers onboard coming into Somalia,” said Omar Sadiq, a resident of Dhobley, a Somali border town.
“Kenya is providing logistical and moral support,” said Abdirahman Omar Osman, a spokesman for Somalia’s Western-backed government, which controls the capital Mogadishu with the help of more than 9000 African Union troops.
Several tanks and military trucks crossed the border alongside “quite a number” of troops, a Kenyan internal security ministry official said.
“There are those who entered Somalia today and many more troops will be following them afterwards,” the official said.
On Saturday, Somali government troops and allied militia wrested control of the al-Shabab-held town of Qoqani in the Lower Juba region, which borders Kenya, backed by heavy bombing by military aircraft.
“Several aircraft dropped bombs on the jungle area of Qoqani causing heavy explosions, and al-Shabab withdrew from the town without face-to-face fighting,” said Sugule Ali, an elder in a nearby village.
Mutua said Kenya’s airforce was not involved in those attacks.
The US military has carried out a number of attacks in recent years against al-Qa’ida militants believed to be hiding in Somalia, including using unmanned drones.
Kenya already backs anti-Shabab and pro-government militia groups in Somali border regions as efforts to create a buffer zone from hostile rebels.
Kenyan authorities have on several occasions expressed fears Islamist extremists would infiltrate the Dadaab camps from Somalia, as the border lies barely 100km away.
Tens of thousands of Somalis have arrived in Dadaab this year fleeing drought, famine and conflict in their home nation.
But while Kenya has blamed the abductions on al-Shabab, experts say the kidnappings could also be the work of pirates, bandits or opportunistic criminal gangs.
Analysts say al-Shabab have been pushed onto the backfoot after the majority pulled out of battle positions in Mogadishu in August, but they still control large areas of south and central Somalia.
Al-Shabab however have said they have shifted to guerrilla tactics, and recent bomb attacks in Mogadishu have demonstrated they are still able to wreak havoc deep inside the city.