NAIROBI, Kenya — Kenyan troops and tanks pushed 50 miles into Somalia on Monday and Kenyan aircraft bombed suspected terrorist positions in the first stage of a military campaign intended to destroy the Islamist insurgent group al Shabab.
The spokesman of al Shabab, a group Washington says has links to al Qaida, warned the Kenyan government that its “tall buildings won’t be left standing” if the invasion continues.
“If you live in a glass house, don’t throw stones,” Ali Mohamud Rage, the spokesman, said in a not-so-veiled threat to Kenya’s booming capital, Nairobi, which hosts one of the continent’s largest Western diplomatic and aid corps, but also a large, restless Somali immigrant population that has made Kenya’s leaders cautious about intervening directly in Somali affairs.
On Saturday, however, the Kenyan government invoked its right of self-defense to go after al Shabab forces in the group’s drought-stricken haven of southern Somalia after a wave of kidnappings raised questions about whether Kenya was able to defend its borders against Somali encroachers.
A British tourist and an elderly French resident were kidnapped three weeks apart by gunmen near the resort island Lamu on the Indian Ocean near Kenya’s border with Somalia. The husband of the British tourist was shot dead in the incident.
Then, last week, armed attackers abducted two Spanish employees of the French aid group Doctors Without Borders who were working in Kenya’s vast Dadaab refugee camp near the Somali border.
Shabab has denied responsibility for the kidnappings and has accused the Kenyan government of conspiring for an excuse to launch an invasion.
Somalia’s transitional government, which barely controls the capital, Mogadishu, and has fought a years-long battle against al Shabab, took advantage of the Kenyan invasion to launch its own offensive, which reportedly was supported by Kenyan air and ground forces.
Monday night, the Kenyan military was camped at Qoqani, 50 miles inside southwestern Somalia, according to a Somali government military commander who was also positioned there.
The commander, Mohammed Salat, said government forces and an allied militia, Ras Kamboni, had seized control of Afmadow, a major town 85 miles inside Somalia.
A spokesman for the Ras Kamboni group, Abdinasir Serar Mah, confirmed by phone that his group is fighting with the support of the Kenyan military.
Reached by phone, a Shabab fighter among those who withdrew from Afmadow said that the group was regrouping to launch a counteroffensive, but he also described confusion stemming from the group’s divided leadership.
“We retreated back without firing a single bullet or coming face to face with any of them,” said the Shabab fighter, who goes by the name of Abu Yunis. Members of Shabab often take on pseudonyms within the organization.
“We are not used to this pressure. We were always the people who launched offensive attacks until we captured a place, but not lately,” he said. “Our commanders are not giving us clear instructions. They have different opinions on how to go about this whole war.”
Abu Yunis predicted that Shabab’s Somali opponents will retreat once Shabab counterattacks, but "we expect the Kenyans will try to stand and fight, but they will face the pain of bullets.”
The Kenyan offensive appears aimed in the direction of Kismayo, a major Somali seaport 75 miles from Afmadow that has been a major source of Shabab funding. Capturing Kismayo has long been a goal for Somalia’s Mogadishu leadership and Western backers.
Shabab has appeared in a weakened position since August when it withdrew from Mogadishu amid speculation that the group was running out of money and was split by divisions among its leaders over how to deal with the drought that has devastated southern Somalia. The United Nations has declared that hundreds of thousands are in danger of starvation, but Shabab had halted most aid missions.
The coordination between Kenya and Somalia's own transitional government, which offered only weak criticism of the incursion, was a reminder that the transitional government is in Mogadishu only because of a U.S.-backed invasion by Ethiopia in 2006 that unseated a coalition Islamic government and sparked the Shabab insurgency.
Historically, Somalis have shown a strong aversion to foreign interference, and any outside move by Western players hoping to stabilize the country and curb the influence of militant Islamism always carries the threat of backfiring.
Abu Yunis said the presence of the Kenyan troops eventually would unite Somalis behind al Shabab.
"It’s nice to have the Kenyan army here for some time. Surely they will misbehave, and we will gain the support of the people,” he said. "We would love for them to leave, but if they are staying, we want them to stay long.”
(Boswell and Yusuf are McClatchy special correspondents.)
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