Kenya wants its forces to seize one of al-Shabaab’s last major strongholds, the port of Kismayo, by August, as it seeks to stabilize Somalia and encourage refugees to go home in safety, said Prime Minister Raila Odinga.
Kenya’s military entered southern Somalia last year to drive out al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda-linked militant group that has waged a five-year insurgency trying to topple the country’s United Nations-backed transitional government. Kenya is part of an African Union force supporting government troops, while Ethiopian soldiers are battling the rebels in central Somalia.
“Kismayo is the real major source of supply by al-Shabaab,” Odinga said. Without controlling the southern port “it’s very difficult to completely neutralize al-Shabaab.” Kenya is seeking U.S. and European support in the “final onslaught” by land, air and sea, he said.
Income from Somali ports, also including Merka and Baraawe, earns al-Shabaab as much as $50 million a year from trade in sugar, charcoal and contraband, the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia said in a July report.
Somalia has had no effective central government since rebels deposed former leader Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. Somali President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed’s government is supposed to hold elections and finish its transitional rule by Aug. 20.
Kenya in October said it was deploying troops to secure its borders after a wave of attacks on foreigners, including the murder of a British tourist and at least four kidnappings, it blamed on al-Shabaab. The group denied responsibility and vowed to strike back at Kenya with bomb attacks.
After initially making slow progress to capture al-Shabaab targets in part because of heavy rains late last year, Kenyan soldiers in May captured Afmadow, 110 kilometers (68 miles), northwest of Kismayo, army spokesman Emmanuel Chirchir said.
The construction of “supply centers” that have housing, schools and health clinics in areas freed from al-Shabaab’s control would enable Somali refugees to voluntarily return home and stem new arrivals, Odinga said. Kenya hosts about 1 million Somalis and many are “economic refugees,” he said.
“We should keep Somalis in Somalia as we address the issue of permanent solutions within the country,” said Odinga, calling on international donors for help with the repatriation. “I think it’s easier to deal with them once they are inside Somalia.”
Somalis fleeing war and famine last year poured across the border into Kenya. The number of UN-registered refugees soared to more than 600,000, with almost three-quarters of them living in the Dadaab complex in northeastern Kenya, the world’s largest refugee facility.