Kenya’s military is having battlefield success against Somali militants Al Shabab, but it is hindering access for humanitarian aid groups in the midst of worst famine in 30 years, aid groups say.
Shabab strongholds in the southern Somali towns of Dhobley, Tabda, Beles Qoqaani and Ras Kamboni have fallen into Kenyan and Somali government hands over the past 36 days, and the once-impenetrable Shabab-held port city of Kismayu – from which Shabab derives millions of dollars in “taxes” on illegal smuggling syndicates – has begun to look vulnerable. Eyewitnesses have reported seeing convoys of Shabab fighters rushing to defend Kismayu, while aid organizations say displaced Somalis are increasingly flowing north toward the government-held capital of Mogadishu ahead of the advancing Kenyan army.
But while battlefield successes may be good news for the Kenyan military and the Somali government, they are less beneficial to ordinary Somalis who were already faced with one of the worst famines in more than 30 years.
“We are deeply concerned by the impact of the intensification of the conflict in Somalia, which threatens to increase internal displacement and may also reduce the ability of aid organizations to provide life-saving assistance to people coping with famine,” said Valerie Amos, the United Nations’ emergency relief coordinator, in a statement. “All parties should refrain from actions that disrupt access and respect international humanitarian law.”
Kenya’s incursion into Somalia is only the latest flare-up in a two-decade long civil war that has sent millions of Somalis from their homes, and forced millions to rely entirely on international food aid for their survival. Somalia’s inability to come up with a government that can bring stability is not just a problem for the Somalis themselves; it also creates a safe haven for criminal gangs to engage in high-seas piracy, as well as a haven for small terrorist groups such as Al-Shabab to operate, and to launch terrorist attacks against Somalia’s neighbors. On July 10, 2010, Shabab took credit for a pair of suicide bombings in Kampala, Uganda, that killed 64 people.
Kenya insists that it had planned its incursion into Somalia for months, and that it coordinates its activities with the Somali transitional government in Mogadishu. But the military operation followed swiftly after a string of kidnappings of Western tourists from the coastal town of Lamu, and Spanish aid workers from the border refugee camps in Dadaab.
One British woman, Judith Tebbutt, was kidnapped and her husband murdered on Sept. 10. A French tourist, Marie Dedieu, was kidnapped from her Lamu home a month later, and subsequently died from lack of medicines. Two aid workers for Medecins Sans Frontieres were kidnapped in mid-October. MSF has largely gone silent about its ongoing effort to secure the safe release of its colleagues, noting that press comments might hinder their release.