By JOSH KRON and JEFFREY GETTLEMAN
Published: October 23, 2011
NAIROBI, Kenya — Foreign military forces have joined the offensive against the Shabab militant group in Somalia as Kenyan troops advanced toward the rebel stronghold of Kismayu from two different directions, Kenya said Sunday.
A Kenyan military spokesman, Maj. Emmanuel Chirchir, said that “one of the partners,” possibly the United States or France, had been behind airstrikes in the past few days, killing a number of Shabab militants. The French Navy has also shelled rebel positions from the sea, the Kenyan military said in a statement.
Two senior American officials in Washington said Sunday that neither the United States military nor the Central Intelligence Agency had carried out airstrikes in Somalia in recent days. One of the officials, who follows American military operations closely, said the Kenyan offensive had forced many Shabab fighters and commanders to disperse, making them easier potential targets, but emphasized that there had been “no U.S. military strikes in Somalia at all recently.”
American officials in Kenya declined to comment. A French diplomat in the United States did not return phone calls.
If Western military powers have indeed joined the conflict, analysts said, it could represent a turning point against the Shabab, a ruthless militant group that has pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda. The group controls much of southern Somalia, though its young fighters and battered pickup trucks are deemed no match for a sophisticated army.
“Everybody is in theater,” Major Chirchir said in a telephone interview on Sunday. “We know about the strikes. They are complementary.”
The American military has previously conducted surgical strikes in Somalia, taking the opportunity to kill terrorism suspects and Shabab fighters who were on the run. In 2006 and 2007, the American military cooperated closely with a large Ethiopian force that stormed into Somalia to oust an Islamist movement that had taken control of much of the country.
About a week ago, Kenya sent hundreds of its soldiers into Somalia to battle the Shabab, whom the Kenyans blame for recent kidnappings in Kenya; many independent analysts, however, doubt the group had a role in the abductions. Kenya’s military says it plans to remain in Somalia until the Shabab’s capacity is “reduced” and Somalia’s weak, American-backed transitional government is able to function.
But Kenya’s military — especially compared with those of its neighbors, like Ethiopia, Uganda, Sudan and Somalia — has scant experience. Several military efforts over the past 20 years by other external powers, from the United States to the United Nations, have failed to deliver a sustainable government in Somalia.
Kenyan military officials say their plan is to squeeze the port of Kismayu, one of Somalia’s biggest towns and a major money-earner for the Shabab, from two sides in a pincer movement with troops massing to the west near Afmadow and to the south in Raas Kaambooni. Heavy rains, though, have literally bogged them down, and after an initial burst of activity, the Kenyan advance seems to have slowed.
Major Chirchir said the Kenyan Navy had also positioned ships along the coastline from the Kenyan border toward Kismayu.
“Any vessel that is there with a militia we will take it down,” he warned.
On Sunday, Kenyan officials said that a French naval ship had shelled the city of Koday, south of Kismayu, and that casualty figures were not yet available. The French military has also launched small, covert strikes in Somalia in the past, aimed at terrorism suspects and pirates.
A possible motivation for French involvement could be the death announced last week of a 66-year-old French woman who was kidnapped on Oct. 1 from a beachside bungalow in Kenya and taken to Somalia. The woman, Marie Dedieu, was quadriplegic and had had cancer, but her abductors refused to allow her to receive medicine, which friends said hastened her death.
Many Kenyans believe that the United States is helping in Somalia. A two-inch-tall front-page headline in The Sunday Nation, a leading Kenyan newspaper, blared: “US planes join assault.”
Kenya is one of the United States’ closest allies in Africa, but last week, American officials said they were caught off guard by the Kenyan offensive and that no American ground troops or military advisers were involved.
American officials here are concerned about the prospect of Shabab militants attacking Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, in revenge, and possibly targeting Westerners. Last week, the Shabab threatened to bring the “flames of war” to Kenya; its members have slaughtered hundreds of Somali civilians with suicide bombs.
The Shabab have also shown their ability to strike abroad. The group claimed responsibility for bombings in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, last year that killed more than 70 people. The Shabab said the attacks were payback for Uganda’s participation in the African Union peacekeeping force that has been protecting Somalia’s transitional government.
On Saturday, the American Embassy sent a text message to Americans in Kenya saying, “ the U.S. Embassy in Kenya has received credible information of an imminent threat of terrorist attacks directed at prominent Kenyan facilities and areas where foreigners are known to congregate, such as malls and nightclubs. Please exercise caution.”
Kenya has been struck before by terrorists, with Al Qaeda blowing up the American Embassy in Nairobi in 1998, killing more than 200 people, and again in 2002 when a beachfront hotel was bombed, killing more than 10.
Already Kenyans are getting jittery. On Friday, a large blast sounded near a popular mall. Conversations at a cafe stopped as patrons peered around.
“It’s an electric transformer,” said a passing waiter. “Don’t worry. It’s not Shabab.”
Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.