Thursday, October 20, 2011



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NAIROBI, Kenya — As fierce fighting spread to new areas of Somalia on Thursday, American officials said they had been taken by surprise by Kenya’s recent march into Somalia to battle Islamist militants.

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Kenya is one of the closest American allies in Africa, frequently cooperating on military and intelligence issues, and American officials have branded Islamist militants in Somalia a serious threat to the United States.

But Kenya’s sudden incursion into Somalia over the weekend caught the United States “on its heels,” one American official said Thursday. A former American official with experience in Africa said Kenyan officers had given their American counterparts “zero” information before the offensive started.

A senior American officer said there were no American military advisors or trainers with the Kenyan troops, but the officer would not comment on whether the United States was providing intelligence or reconnaissance information to the Kenyans.

Somali officials have likewise denied that they knew anything about the Kenyan offensive before it began, though it would be politically uncomfortable for them to publicly invite a foreign force onto their soil given the anger many Somalis felt toward Ethiopia’s incursion into the country to oust Islamists in 2006.

Some analysts find it hard to believe that the American government, with a huge embassy and presence here in Kenya, would not have had an inkling of Kenya’s plans, which have precipitated one of the biggest military operations the Kenyans have undertaken since independence in 1963.

But the United States has acknowledged its involvement in Somalia before. During the Ethiopian invasion, for instance, American officials revealed that they had provided the Ethiopian military with intelligence and that they had even coordinated air strikes alongside Ethiopian maneuvers.

On Thursday, African Union troops stormed a stronghold of the Shabab Islamist militant group on the outskirts of Mogadishu, the capital, while a militia backed by Kenyan troops simultaneously attacked another Shabab stronghold along the Kenya-Somalia border, taking it over and forcing Shabab fighters to flee.

“All of us in the field are liaising together,” said Kenya’s military spokesperson, Major Emmanuel Chirchir, adding that fighting would stop only “when Al Shabab is not able to fire a single round.”

The Shabab control large swathes of southern Somalia, beheading people in their territory and blocking Western aid agencies from delivering food during a time of famine. The group claimed responsibility for a terrorist bombing in Uganda last year that left over 70 dead, and it has instated strict laws banning music, soccer and even bras from areas they control.

In the past six weeks, several Westerners have been kidnapped from Kenya near the Somalia border, and Kenyan officials immediately blamed the Shabab for the abductions, citing them as a rationale for sending hundreds of troops into Somalia over the weekend. But many independent analysts doubt the abductions were committed by the Shabab and say pirate or bandit gangs are the most likely culprits.

Kenyan security forces have also been working hand-in-hand with clan-based militias in southern Somalia, and on Thursday one of those militias, the Ras Kamboni Movement, captured the town of Ras Kamboni, forcing Shabab fighters there to flee, the militia said. Fighting lasted for roughly one hour as approximately 300 militia soldiers infiltrated the town.

Ras Kamboni is a small fishing village along the Kenyan border where Somali militants have trained. Security analysts have said the village can be used as a jumping-off point for raids onto the tourist-laden beaches of Kenya.

On Wednesday, the French government announced that Marie Dedieu, a 66-year old quadriplegic cancer patient who was abducted by Somali gunmen on October 1st in Kenya about 60 miles from the border, had died. A British woman kidnapped a few weeks earlierafter her husband was shot to death was also believed to be taken towards Ras Kamboni.

“We all felt that Somalia was so far away, until the 1st of October it arrived on our doorstep,” said a long-time acquaintance of Ms. Dedieu who spoke on the condition of anonymity for security fears.

On Thursday, the Kenyan government signaled what it called a partial triumph over the militants.

“It is safe to say that Al Shabab has moved from previous locations near the Kenyan border,” Major Chirchir said. “But we have not attained what we wanted,” he said, adding that operational plans were being drawn up for a “game-changer” in the fight.

But Mogadishu, which is splintered into spheres of influence loosely controlled by peacekeeping troops, warlords, independent militias and forces loyal to Somalia’s transitional government, seems to remain a tough fight.

At dawn on Thursday, hundreds of African Union and Somali government forces pushed Shabab fighters out of Deynile, witnesses said. But within hours, Shabab fighters began to regroup, recapturing territory as the battles dissolved into man-to-man combat laced with heavy shelling, residents said.

The Shabab announced in August that they were withdrawing from Mogadishu, prompting Somalia’s transitional government to celebrate and claim that the capital was under its control for the first time in years. However, the Shabab kept fighters on the outskirts of the city, including the neighborhood of Deynile, believed to be their last stronghold in Mogadishu.

By early afternoon on Thursday, witnesses in Mogadishu said Shabab fighters were dragging a dozen dead bodies, some of them believed to be African Union peacekeepers, through the bullet-riddled streets.

At least 16 people are believed to have been killed and dozens wounded in the fighting, witnesses say. Casualties from both sides were flooding into Deynile’s main hospital.

“I don’t know where to go, but people are on alert,” said Sa’dia, a 27-year old mother living in Deynile. “The Shabab are telling people to flee.”

Mohamed Ibrahim contributed reporting from Mogadishu, Somalia; and Eric Schmitt from Washington D.C