Kenyan troops brace long-haul battle in Somalia

Updated: 2011-11-17 08:57

(Xinhua)

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NAIROBI - A military operation to protect Kenyan borders from armed incursions by suspected Somali militia progressed into its first month on Wednesday as military planners braced for a longer haul effort to pacify the entire Somali territory.

Code-named "Operation Linda Nchi" in Kiswahili, meaning "Operation Defend the Nation", the military offensive has won international acclaim for its timeliness.

"We do not have any territorial designs on Somalia. We are trying to guarantee security of our visitors and that this operation is supported internationally," Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka said this week.

Kenyan Defense Forces (KDF), which launched its first ever cross-border military operation against an extremist group since independence from British rule in 1963, has made major gains on the ground, backed by aerial firepower and ground troops.

The operation was mounted after a series of armed kidnappings involving two Spanish aid workers, a French woman resident in Kenya and a British publishing executive touring Kenya, seized from a luxury resort at the tourist haven of Lamu.

The East African nation has launched a diplomatic offensive to win worldwide support for the operation in Somalia. The purpose of the diplomatic outreach is to win over key global players, including the U.N. Security Council.

East African leaders have also backed the operation in Somalia. As the military operation entered its full month, Kenya President Mwai Kibaki hosted two regional leaders, Yoweri Museveni and Sheikh Sharif Ahmed of Uganda and Somalia respectively.

The leaders agreed in Nairobi Wednesday to build on the progress of the Kenyan operation.

The leaders said they discussed the progress of the operation. They agreed on the need for enhancing coordination to successfully defeat Al-Shabaab.

They also agreed to build momentum created by the joint operation by the Somali government forces, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and the Kenyan troops to eliminate the threat of the Al-Shabaab.

"They reviewed political and security situation in Somalia. The conflict in Somalia has extracted numerous problems, refugee crisis and other forms of organized crime," the leaders noted in a joint communique.

Moses Wetangula, the Kenyan Foreign Minister, read the joint communique in which the leaders said the situation in Somalia continues to threaten security in Africa.

The East African leaders praised the allied troops for the gains already made and the need to galvanize international support for this purpose.

International backing for the operation has been flowing since the launch of the operation. States including Australia, Bangladesh, Indonesia, India, Iran, Madagascar, Malaysia and Mauritius, have vowed to join efforts to combat piracy along the India Ocean, where navigation has been worst hit by piracy.

Other countries, including Mozambique, Oman, Rwanda, Singapore, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Thailand, United Arab Emirates and Yemen, agreed on the joint strategy to fight piracy and the Al- Shabaab off the Somali coastline.

Kenya's diplomatic offensive has taken top officials regionally and internationally, to not only seek political support, but also look for financial, technical and actual military support for the operation inside Somalia.

This week, Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga met with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The State of Israel agreed to help train Kenyan forces for the operation in Somalia, to help secure the borders. Both sides agreed to sign a Memorandum of Understanding on homeland security cooperation.

On the battlefront, the troops, who recorded early victories after a series of sustained air-strikes saw them gain more ground from the Al-Shabaab militants, are radically revising the operational manual to deal with a humanitarian crisis.

Earlier, Operational Commander Colonel Cyrus Oguna said the plan to blockade the port city of Kismayu was shelved after it became apparent the humanitarian crisis in Southern Somalia could worsen if aid supplies were curtailed.

The Kenyan and Somali loyalist troops are in control of the towns of Busar and Barmuda in the northern sector of the military operation have been taken. Dhobley, Tabda, about 100 km north of Kenyan border and Faqoqani have also fallen.

The Al-Shabaab fighters have melted into civilian population and resorted to operating in small groups as opposed to moving in large groups to avoid becoming obvious targets of air strikes.

While still planning to advance on the Al-Shabaab strongholds of Kismayu and Afmadow, the Kenyan troops are concentrating on pacification patrols. The patrols are aimed at avoiding a sudden security vacuum, to be exploited by the Al-Shabaab.

"Pacification is tedious, time consuming and painstaking. We are going door-to-door and Al-Shabaab elements hiding in houses are not easily identified," Oguna said.

The security operation is ongoing at the battlefront. But in Nairobi and other major towns, the police have intensified their investigations into the activities of the group.

Kenya's internal Security Minister George Saitoti said all security agencies in the East African nation have been engaged in the battle against the Al-Shabaab.

Kenyan air strikes have destroyed a logistics base used by the extremist group opposed to a western-style democracy inside Somalia for training of recruits.

Police operating on the home-front have also made modest gains on the Al-Shabaab operatives in Kenya after the government announced an amnesty in exchange for information on the nature of military training offered by the Somali militia.

"Given the gravity of this matter, we must lay bare the facts on this matter because they are important," Saitoti said.

The military operation was launched on October 16 to secure the Kenyan borders from threats posed by the growing number of attacks linked to the Al-Shabaab.

Saitoti said following intensified police investigations, an Al- Shabaab training manual and a bulletproof vest were recovered in a house belonging to an Al-Shabaab suspect.

The suspect, Elgiva Bwire Oliacha, was convicted on his own guilty plea and sent to life in jail. He admitted to being part of a group that hurled a grenade at a busy bus park. "These discoveries have led to the arrest of more suspects," Saitoti said.

"For the first-time," Saitoti said the "Police have arrested suspect with weapons and got an admission of membership to an organized criminal group," he said.

"Serious investigations are being carried out. The issue we are dealing with is terrorism. We need to get inkling into the operation of this group. We have all the agencies to focus not only on investigations. We are trying to deal with these terrorist organizations," Saitoti asserted.

Security precautions are in place visibly and on a measure than cannot be seen have been laid out at all strategic locations around the capital, Nairobi and major towns.

On the battlefront, the military is also dealing with hostile propaganda coming from the Al- Shabaab.

"It has been observed that as a new propaganda tactic, the Al- Shabaab will simulate an attack engagement and then exaggerate it by peddling lies to the media that KDF and the TFG forces were engaged in combat and as a result, some soldiers have been killed or hurt and their equipment confiscated," said Major Emmanuel Chirchir, the military spokesman.

"This they do in the quest to try and destruct the focus and morale of our forces. We assure the public that the Kenya Defense Forces are well equipped for this operation, both mentality and physically and will not be daunted with these inane antics."

The Kenyan Navy, also involved in the anti-Shabaab operation at sea, have been forced to fire randomly at suspected Al-Shabaab fighters at sea.

The rag-tag nature of the group complicates battle, but the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Southern Somalia, has also forced the Kenyan troops to focus mostly on securing relief supplies as opposed to engaging in real battle against the group.

On November 8, the KDF forces changed tactics on the battlefront to engage in patrols and pacification in the liberated areas and Al- Shabaab pockets.