Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Kenya-Eritrea row over arms to Somalia heats up

Eritrea calls Kenyan comments 'extremely regrettable'

* Spate of attacks near Kenya-Somalia border area over weekend (Adds latest attacks)

By Richard Lough and Feisal Omar

NAIROBI/MOGADISHU, Nov 6 (Reuters) - Eritrea has rejected a Kenyan accusation that it might be arming Somalia's Islamist al Shabaab rebels, and said a threat by Kenya to take unspecified action in response was "unfortunate".

Eritrea has become increasingly isolated by accusations from its neighbours that it is arming the Islamist rebels in Somalia. The diplomatic row follows Kenya's deployment of troops across its border to fight al Shabaab in southern Somalia three weeks ago.

Kenya's Foreign Affairs Minister Moses Wetangula summoned the Eritrean ambassador on Friday to raise concerns over what he called reports of arms shipments from Eritrea to al Shabaab, and said Nairobi could take unspecified measures in response.

Eritrea has long denied arming al Shabaab, and accuses neighbours of inventing such accusations to tarnish its image.

"The Government of Eritrea finds extremely regrettable the remarks attributed to the foreign minister of Kenya ... regarding the fabricated story of Eritrean arms shipments to al Shabaab in Somalia," Eritrea's foreign ministry said in a statement posted on its website and date Nov. 5.

Kenya's implied threat of action was "unfortunate" ahead of a planned visit to Kenya by Eritrea's foreign minister, it said.

Kenya sent its troops across the border into Somalia three weeks ago to crush the al Shabaab militants it blames for a wave of kidnappings in Kenya and frequent cross-border attacks.

Since then Kenya has been plagued by a string of attacks along its northeastern border area, as well as in the capital.

Suspected al Shabaab militants launched a dawn raid on Sunday on the border post of Lafey, killing one police reservist, military sources and local elders said. Late on Saturday, Kenyan security forces battled with gunmen a few kilometres outside the Dadaab refugee camp.

"Lafey was turned into a battlefield for over an hour until the police and army repulsed the raiders," said a local leader who declined to be named.


Earlier on Saturday evening, a grenade attack on a church in Garissa, northern Kenya, killed two people, hours after a U.N. aid convoy struck a landmine which failed to detonate in the Dadaab refugee camp, close to the Somali border.

Nairobi has threatened to carry out air strikes on a number of rebel bases across southern and central Somalia in response to what it said were reports Eritrea had flown consignments of weapons into the militant enclave of Baidoa.

One of al Shabaab's top commanders told worshippers on Sunday the insurgents would not surrender their key strongholds, even if subjected to aerial bombardments.

"Kenya's fighter jets will never seize our towns, but they may injure or kill a few people," Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys said in Almada, in the outskirts of the capital Mogadishu, after leading prayers to mark the Muslim festival of Eid.

Kenya has long been alarmed by its lawless neighbour, awash with weapons and mired in conflict for two decades.

To keep peace on the frontier, it has quietly supported the birth of a semi-autonomous Somali province dubbed 'Jubaland', comprising three Somali regions bordering Kenya. The status of Jubaland, also sometimes called Azania, is not clear: Somalia's government says it does not support the Jubaland initiative.

Al Shabaab says the Kenyan military incursion is part of a plan to impose control over Somali territory to create a buffer zone between the two countries.

"Let them not deceive you with Azania. It is a Christian state, take care," said Aweys, whose militants are fighting to impose a hardline version of Sharia law on Somalia.

Kenya's military denies any long-term plans to assert control over parts of Somalia, and says it is fighting for Kenya's own security and to help the Western-backed Mogadishu government. (Additional reporting by Noor Ali in Garissa; Writing by Richard Lough)

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