Saturday, November 5, 2011

Kenya confronts Eritrea over arms cache

Updated 3 hr(s) 33 min(s) ago

By Isaac Ongiri and Patrick Kibet

Kenya formally took on Eritrea over claims that the Red Sea country was supplying arms to Al Shabaab, with the diplomatic row clouding the Kenya Defence Forces operation against the militia in Somalia.

And in an attempt to stop the further souring of relations after Kenya hinted at severing ties, Eritrea’s President Isaias Afewerki is set to dispatch a top level delegation to calm fears that Asmara is engaging in a proxy war against Nairobi.

Foreign Affairs Minister Moses Wetang’ula summoned the Eritrean Ambassador to Kenya Beyene Russom to clarify the widely reported allegations over arms allegedly airlifted to the Al Shabaab.

Wetang’ula threatened that Nairobi could review its diplomatic relations with Asmara if it is not satisfied with the country’s explanation. However, Eritrea has flatly rejected the allegations.

Somali Transitional Federal Government forces patrol Kakoni town in Somalia. [PHOTO:MAXWELL AGWANDA]

The diplomatic row raged even as KDF Friday warned that foreign fighters were re-grouping near Barawe and Marka in Somalia, with the intent of fleeing to Yemen.

"We therefore warn any merchant ships operating along this sea lane of communication to be very cautious," the Military Spokesperson Emmanuel Chirchir warned in statement.

In the US, a Republican Senator backed Kenya’s military campaign and urged Washington and Nato to join the war to "collapse" Somalia’s Al Shabaab militant group.

Senator Mark Kirk said the success of the Kenyan operation would significantly weaken Al Shabaab’s ability to plan and execute terror attacks and greatly contribute to regional stability.

"I commend the Kenyan Government and the allied groups for their action. The Nato and US should support this Kenyan action," Kirk was quoted telling the local Senate on Wednesday, adding, "We have the objective to collapse Al Shabaab in Somalia".

In Nairobi, Wetang’ula told journalists after a meeting with the Eritrean envoy of the drastic action to review ties if Asmara does not offer a convincing explanation to rebut claims it was engaged in mercenary activities against Kenyan forces in the anarchic Horn of Africa nation.

"I met with Eritrea’s Ambassador whom I had called and discussed several issues. I raised concerns about intelligence that we have information that there is a possibility of arms flowing to Al Shabaab from Eritrea," Wetang’ula explained.

"As a country, if we get unsatisfactory explanations and answers, then we move to the second level," said a hard-talking Wetang’ula.

Exploring sanctions

Kenya cites intelligence information that three aircraft loaded with weapons had early this week landed in Baidoa, an Al Shaabab stronghold that Kenya has warned it would attack alongside nine other towns.

The others are Baadheere, Baydhabo, Dinsur, Afgooye, Buale, Barawe, Jilib, Kismayu, and Afmadow. Kenyan forces are involved in a joint assault with Transitional Federal Government troops to crush the Al Shabaab.

Wetang’ula explained that Kenya was part of regional bloc Igad (Inter-Governmental Authority on Development) and AU (African Union) and were exploring sanctions against Eritrea for activities reported to undermine regional stability.

The minister said although that does not "close the door on diplomatic engagement" Kenya would review the facts and "as to what decision to take we leave it for another day".

But even as Wetang’ula and Ambassador Beyene held talks, it emerged that Kenyan military intelligence supported by their colleagues from Britain and France were conducting satellite review of the incident. This, according to sources, is to unravel the mystery about the origin of the arms cargo now in the hands of the militia in Baidoa and port town of Kismayu.

Sources said a concerned President Afewerki was scheduled on Monday to dispatch his Foreign Affairs minister to Nairobi.

Wetang’ula raised concerns that apart from Eritrea arming the rag tag militia, it had persistently refused to recognise Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG). Kenya says its support for Al Shabaab is undermining efforts to restore peace and stability in Somalia.

To demonstrate Eritrea is not a hostile nation, Ambassador Beyenne offered letters from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs requesting to meet with Kenyan counterparts to discuss Somalia issue.

Sources at Kenya’s Foreign Affairs ministry indicated that preliminary investigations on the three cargo flights have given undoubted pointers to Eritrea’s involvement, despite Asmara’s denial.

"Kenya strongly believes that Asmara is involved in clandestine activities aimed at undermining its operations in Somalia, and preliminary intelligence reports confirm our suspicions," said a senior diplomat.

The chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Defence and Foreign Relations, Adan Keynan, urged the Government to seek full explanation from Eritrea. He added that the reason countries have diplomatic exchanges was to enhance good neighbourliness, co-operation and respect.

"It is embarrassing that in a situation where all nations in the region support the peace initiatives in Somalia, one country would turn wild and invest in arming militants. Such people should not be allowed to advance their ill-interests," said the Wajir West MP.

Not involved

But in another statement from Asmara, the Eritrean Government maintained that it was not involved in the delivery of the consignment to Baidoa. "The Government of Eritrea states categorically that these accusations are pure fabrications and outright lies, as Eritrea has not sent any arms to Somalia," read the statement.

The Eritrean Government instead accused its neighbour, Ethiopia, of being behind what they termed as disinformation.

Asmara said the motive was to undermine Eritrea’s constructive regional and international engagements. "Chief among the authors of this campaign is Ethiopia, which is not only occupying sovereign Eritrean territory in violation of International law and United Nations Security Council Resolutions, but also the main cause of destabilisation in the Horn of Africa."

The statement from the Eritrean Foreign Affairs ministry also accused Ethiopia of blocking Asmara’s attempts to reactivate its activities with Igad.

Igad, which met on October 20 in Ethiopia, has also requested the UN Security Council to impose further sanctions on Eritrea over the Somalia conflict. Igad Council of Foreign Affairs Ministers will meet with members of the UN Security Council in two weeks to seek further sanctions against Eritrea.

The Security Council imposed an arms embargo on Eritrea in December 2009; including travel restrictions and asset freeze on top Eritrean political and military leaders because of alleged support for Al Shabaab militants.

A UN report had also adversely mentioned the role of Eritrea in arming the extremists

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