Kenya has sent troops into Somalia to pursue Islamic militants its suspects of kidnapping four foreigners.
Kenyan soldiers are tracking down the Al Shabaab extremists across the border into Somalia, said government spokesman Alfred Matua Sunday.
Late Sunday evening, a military helicopter crashed and caught fire inside Kenya from an apparent mechanical malfunction, reported AP. No civilian casualties were reported but the status of the pilots on board was not immediately known.
Residents in southern Somalia said that columns of Kenyan troops had moved in and that military aircraft were flying overhead. Resident Ali Nur Hussein said Kenyan troops arrived in tanks and military trucks, and that troops were coordinating with Somali government soldiers.
About 25 armored vehicles full of Kenyan soldiers passed through the Somali town of Dhobley, according to the BBC. Tanks were also seen. There are also reports that Kenyan military helicopters have been carrying out raids in Somalia.
In response, Al Shabaab — the radical Islamist group in Somalia that is allied with Al Qaeda — tried to raise the alarm in the areas it controls, AP news agency reports.
Residents in the town of Qoqani said militants were going into people's homes and forcibly recruiting new fighters, the report said.
Kenya's dramatic increase in military force comes after suspected Islamic militants killed one foreign tourist and abducted four other foreigners from Kenya in the past few weeks. This violence has hit Kenya's lucrative tourist industry and threatens to destabilize the country's overall security.
Kenya's new military response is designed to try to halt any further destabilization of East Africa by Islamic extremist violence.
Kenya, which is East African region's economic and military giant, is evoking the United Nations charter allowing military action in self-defense against Somalia, its largely lawless neighbor to the north.
"If you are attacked by an enemy, you have to pursue that enemy through hot pursuit and to try hit wherever that enemy is," said Defense Minister Yusuf Haji in a news conference Saturday.
"If a country is provoked and its territorial boundary is violated, a country has all the right to deal with the crisis wherever it is," emphasized George Saitoti, the minister for Internal Security.
Al Shabaab is allied to Al Qaeda and has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States. It is fighting to impose its strict interpretation of Islamic Shariah law on Somalia.
The recent abductions of tourists and aid workers in Kenya have heightened tensions and pushed the Kenyan government to its new policy. Somalia’s violence has spilled its 400 miles of largely unpatrolled border with Kenya.
On September 11 a British tourist, David Tebbutt, was shot dead and his wife Judtih, 56, kidnapped by gunmen who came on motorboats and attacked the couple at the Kiwayu luxury resort on Kenya’s northern coastline.
Three weeks later Marie Dedieu, a 66-year old disabled French woman in a wheelchair, was taken from her rented home on the island of Manda just across a narrow channel from the popular coastal tourist town of Shela on Lamu Island.
Then on Oct 13 came the abduction of two Spanish women working for the international medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) who were seized at gunpoint inside Dadaab, a wind-swept city-sized sprawl of refugee camps in Kenya’s inhospitable northern wastelands.
Their driver was shot and wounded and their MSF-branded 4x4 was comandeered by the kidnappers who sped off in the direction of the Somali border 60 miles to the east.
GlobalPost in Kenya: 2 Spanish aid workers kidnapped
Soon after the attack Leo Nyongwesa, the provincial police chief, said a manhunt had been launched. “We are following them by the road and air. We have closed the borders. We are tracking them down,” he said on Oct 13.
In reality the border cannot be closed as it stretches through harsh desert and scrub and is unpoliced.
By the morning of Oct. 14, with no rescue carried-out, Nyongesa told reporters that it seemed clear the kidnappers had indeed crossed into Somalia. The stolen car was found abandoned 12 miles from the border.
Dadaab refugee camp is at the heart of one of the world’s largest humanitarian relief operations in response to a regional drought and a famine in some parts of southern Somalia.
Since the kidnapping of the two aid workers some charities and United Nations agencies have confined their staff to fortified compounds. Others are mulling whether to pull foreign staff out or scale back activities that are not directly related to saving lives.
Just as a massive suicide truck bomb in Mogadishu earlier this month made aid workers more wary of helping the tens of thousands who have sought food, medical care and shelter in the Somali capital, so this kidnapping will hamper the relief effort in Dadaab which is now home to around 450,000 people.
Tourism and the charity industry both make significant contributions to Kenya’s economy.
Kenya is a regional hub for aid agencies and benefits from the presence of so many charities working to alleviate the Somali refugee crisis. Aid agencies import vehicles, rent premises, hire staff, buy visas and pay taxes all of which brings foreign currency into the local economy.
The figures for tourism are easier to add up: Kenya received over 1 million tourists last year; the industry brought in more than $800 million making it the third biggest earner after tea and horticulture. Kenya cannot afford the spread of insecurity and the fear that goes with it. Hotels in Lamu have had cancellations since the kidnappings began and some have closed, even if temporarily.
The pirates who prowl off Kenya’s coast, and the famine pushing over a thousand Somalis a day into desperate exile in Dadaab’s camps cannot be blamed on Kenya. Nor can the civil war that has raged in Somalia since 1991, its most recent iteration being the brutal battle between Al Qaeda-linked Islamists and the Western-backed government in Mogadishu.
GlobalPost in Kenya: Kidnappings, new Kenyan port threaten historic Lamu
But successive Kenyan governments have shown little but wilful neglect and contempt for both their own ethnic Somali nationals and Somalis from across the border and this has stoked mutual resentment and suspicion.
The Kenyan state has hardly tried, and never succeeded, in projecting either political power or economic benefits from the capital to the northern badlands, a barren region which feels scarcely part of the nation.
A Somali ghetto in Nairobi has become both recruiting ground and rearbase for Al Shabaab whose fighters dissolve among the throng of ordinary people, just as they hide themselves among the refugees in Dadaab.
Rather than targeting the criminals, Kenyan security forces simply pull regular dragnets through Eastleigh rounding up and roughing up people at random.
Nor is this the first time Kenya’s tourism industry has been threatened by violence. In both 1998 and 2002 the country was the scene of murderous Al Qaeda bombings that targeted the United States embassy in Nairobi and an Israeli hotel and airliner in Mombasa.
But not all the threats come from outside. Crime, sometimes violent, is a perennial concern and in 2008 politicians stoked ethnic tensions that turned to slaughter after disputed elections, leaving well over a thousand dead and hundreds of thousands homeless.
Kenya's announcement of more aggressive military action against Al Shabaab most likely has the full backing of the United States and British governments.