The possible role of Eritrea in supporting Al Shabaab insurgents has come into sharp focus after the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) confirmed that two aircraft landed in Baidoa with a consignment of arms for the rebels.
Although KDF did not name the origin of the aircraft, chatter on many Somali Internet sites, quoting Al Shabaab, said they were Eritrean.
Prime Minister of Somalia Abdiweli Mohamed addressed a press conference on Monday in Nairobi. Kenyan forces have confirmed two aircrafts landed in Baidoa with a consignment of arms for the militants.
Kenya’s military now plans to strike Baidoa and has advised anyone with relatives and friends in the town to warn them of the imminent attack.
Hitting Baidoa and taking over the airstrip would cut off one of the key supply routes, apart from Kismayu port, for weapons to the militants.
On Tuesday, The Standard exclusively reported that aircraft suspected to be from Eritrea were spotted on Baidoa’s airstrip on Saturday under tight security from Al Shabaab.
Eritrea has been accused of pouring flames on the conflict in Somalia by flying in weapons and explosives to the militants using the airstrip in Baidoa, a town controlled by the militants.
During the invasion of Somalia by Ethiopia, Eritrea harboured leaders of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) and its military wing, now Al Shabaab, and was accused by the United Nations of supplying them with weapons to fight a proxy war against Ethiopia.
On Tuesday, a member of Somalia’s Parliament, Mr Mahamud Abdulla, told a Somali news agency website that he witnessed over 10 vehicles from Baidoa airstrip enter a building in the area over the weekend.
He said Al Shabaab informants told him the weapons included heavy artillery and explosives.
In his daily briefing notes for the media, military spokesperson Major Emmanuel Chirchir, in addition to Baidoa, warned residents of Baadheere, Baydhabo, Dinsur, Afgooye, Bwale, Barawe, Jilib, Kismayu and Afmadow to beware and avoid being used as conduits for the weapons.
"In line with the Kenya Defence Forces Strategy of diminishing Al Shabaab effectiveness and weapon use, the aforementioned towns will remain under imminent attack. Residents in the towns are advised to avoid contact with Al Shabaab militia," said Major Chirchir.
"The Kenya Defence Forces also urges anyone with relatives and friends in the aforementioned areas to advise them accordingly," he noted.Al Shabaab are marshalling forces and digging in around Afmadow, where heavy rains, muddy terrain and the threat of landmines have made movement on the ground difficult.
Kenyan jets have been pounding Al Shabaab training camps around Afmadow ahead of a final battle that could be decisive, as far as Kenya’s and Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government’s (TFG’s) goal of moving on to capture Kismayu is concerned.
The immediate goal of the joint offensive is to clear Al Shabaab out of its strongholds in central and southern Somalia and put in place adminstrators friendly to both Kenya and the TFG. Kenya is tightening the diplomatic screws on Al Shabaab and its allies even as the insurgents prepare for a major showdown at their Afmadow base. Just a day after the Government announced it would ask the United Nations to assist in blockading the Somali port of Kismayu, Prime Minister Raila Odinga on Tuesday met a select group of diplomats and appraised them on the operation against the militants.
"Our joint forces have liberated a large portion of Jubaland are now assisting the civilian population to set up local administrative units. The towns that have been captured are now being put under civilian administration," said Raila.
The two premiers were addressing the press outside Raila’s office in Nairobi, after a lengthy meeting with diplomats drawn from various countries that are in one way or another supporting the joint operation in Somalia. Raila reiterated their call that the International Criminal Court should investigate and indict Al Shabaab commanders for acts against humanity. And as the Kenya Defence Force (KDF) and troops from the TFG close in on the terrorists, international support from Africa and beyond is being marshalled to back the exercise dubbed "Operation Linda Nchi".
The flurry of diplomatic activity is also meant to counter Al Shabaab’s propaganda machine, which has had a field day due to the scarcity of updates by the KDF on its military offensive.
Raila and Ali maintained they were fighting a common enemy and needed more support from the international community.
Raila said Kenya is not interested in occupying Somalia and will move its troops out as soon as the country gains stability.
"Our joint military operation has so far liberated a large portion of Jubaland and we are assisting civilian population on the ground," said Raila. Ali said the Al Shabaab was a global problem that required support not only from Kenya and other African countries but also from the international community.
"We are succeeding with these efforts, we are facing a common enemy, and therefore we should have common strategy to defeat Al Shabaab," he said.
Mohammed said the people of Somalia had suffered enough, and that they would need help from the international community to rebuild the country.
Raila said Kenya was ready to investigate claims by a humanitarian agency of civilian deaths in an air raid by Kenyan warplanes against the militants on Sunday.
"If there is any death that has occurred as a result of the military operation, it will be investigated thoroughly," Raila told reporters. "It is not our intention to kill innocent civilians". Aid agency Medicines Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) alleged that five civilians, including children, were killed when a bomb hit a camp in Jilib hosting some 9,000 displaced Somalis.
Aid agencies operate in the area only with permission from the terror outfit and there has been no independent confirmation of the claims that were widely reported by western news agencies.
A regional Shabaab official, Sheikh Abukar Ali Ada, put the death toll at 15 and vowed to avenge the attack.
But military spokesperson Major Chirchir said 10 Shabaab fighters were killed in the raid and the civilians died after a Shabaab vehicle mounted with an anti-aircraft gun and explosives was hit by the warplane and then driven into the camp where it exploded. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) urged all sides on Tuesday to respect civilian lives and said it had resumed food distribution to over 6,000 displaced people in the camp after a temporary suspension.
"The ICRC and the Somali Red Crescent remind all parties to the conflict of their obligation to spare the civilian population," ICRC Somalia chief Pascal Mauchle said in a statement.
Raila cautioned Kenyans against singling out ethnic Somalis saying Al Shabaab terrorists were not limited to one ethnic group.
He also assured tourists visiting the country, and those planning to spend their Christmas holidays in Kenya that security had been enhanced.
"We have secured our vital installations, hotels and buildings. The country is more secure than before," said the PM