NAIROBI, Oct 16 – Kenyan troops and tanks crossed the border into war-torn Somalia Sunday to attack Islamist Shabaab rebels accused of kidnapping foreigners, who in turn warned Kenya its soldiers faced the “pain of bullets.”
“We have crossed into Somalia in pursuit of the Shabaab, who are responsible for the kidnappings and attacks on our country,” government spokesman Alfred Mutua told AFP.
The Al-Qaeda linked Shabaab 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 Shabaab 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 Shabaab fighters “the enemy” and vowed to attack them “wherever they will be.”
In just over a month, a British woman and a French woman have been abducted from beach resorts in two separate incidents, dealing a major blow to Kenya’s tourism industry.
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 over 9,000 African Union troops.
Several tanks and military trucks crossed the border alongside “quite a number” of troops, a Kenyan internal security ministry official said, asking for anonymity.
“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 Shabaab-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 the Shabaab 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-Qaeda militants believed to be hiding in Somalia, including using unmanned drones.
Kenya already backs anti-Shabaab 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 100 kilometres (60 miles) 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 the Islamist Shabaab, experts say the kidnappings could also be the work of pirates, bandits or opportunistic criminal gangs.
Analysts say the Shabaab 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.
The Shabaab 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.
Somalia has had no effective government ever since it plunged into repeated rounds of civil wars beginning in 1991, allowing a flourishing of militia armies, extremist rebels and piracy.