France to help supply Kenyans fighting in Somalia

October 25, 2011 - 2:50 PM
SOMALIA FIGHTING

Map locates Mogadishu, Somalia, where intense fighting is reported

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — France said Monday it would ferry supplies to Kenyan troops fighting an Islamist militia in Somalia while police investigated whether a grenade attack on a Nairobi bar was the first retaliatory strike against Kenya by the Somali group.

The announcement of the French assistance, made in Paris by a military spokesman to The Associated Press, marks a significant step-up of international involvement in the fight against al-Shabab, a group which has pledged allegiance to al-Qaida and which controls much of southern Somalia. The group has been rocked by an offensive by African Union forces that reclaimed control of parts of Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, in recent weeks and by Kenya's military intervention, which began in mid-October after Somali gunmen kidnapped four European women in Kenya.

In Somalia, residents in a southern town reported that military aircraft had flown overhead and likely dropped ordinance.

"Two planes flew over the town, then bangs and explosions began," said Ali Abdullahi, a resident in Kudha. "I don't know any causalities yet, but we are terrified."

Ahmednor Addow, another resident, said he believed the bombs were targeting an al-Shabab base.

"We heard more than 10 bangs and explosions. They were very heavy bombings," Salah Ali, another resident said. "The whole area was sealed off by al-Shabab fighters who ordered people to stay away."

It was unclear to what nation the warplanes belonged.

Al-Shabab has threatened to launch suicide bombings inside Kenya in retaliation, and a grenade attack that wounded a dozen people at a working-class Nairobi pub early Monday heightened those fears. The U.S. Embassy in Nairobi has warned than a terrorist attack may be imminent. The U.S. warning said likely targets include shopping malls and nightclubs where foreigners congregate.

Police Commissioner Mathew Iteere told a news conference Monday that the grenade exploded at 1:15 a.m. while 20 people were inside the bar. Three people were seriously wounded, he said. The blast overturned chairs and tables, and blood stained the floor. Iteere said police did not yet have any suspects.

"It is too early at this point in time to give a conclusive answer" who was responsible he said, adding: "The person who lobbed the grenade into the pub was not seen by anybody."

Police have tightened security around hotels, bridges and fuel depots, Iteere said.

Josphat Karuri, 42, the owner of a liquor store across the street from the pub, said he expects to lose business, though he supports Kenya's military incursion into Somalia.

"It has created a lot tension and fear. Like now that I have opened there are no customers. Usually at this time I am normally busy," he said. "I think Kenya is totally right pursing the al-Shabab. ... We are worried that they may strike back but even though the worry is there we need to flush them out. If we keep quiet they may hit harder."

Police tape cordoned off the scene of the attack, a small lane full of bars.

"I think it is an act of desperation targeting this pub in the backstreet of Nairobi," said Peninah Ndinda, a passer-by who blamed al-Shabab for the attack.

A Kenyan military spokesman on Sunday said that France's navy bombed a town in Somalia near an al-Shabab stronghold but the French Embassy on Monday denied it, saying that no French warships are in the vicinity. The French military spokesman in Paris, Col. Thierry Burkhard, also said no French warship had shelled Somalia.

Burkhard said French transport planes will fly supplies from Nairobi to an airport in northern Kenya beginning Monday or Tuesday, and that the operation would be "limited in scope."

Kenya said a string of kidnappings and attacks on Kenyan soil over the past two months prompted its decision to send troops to Somalia, where Ugandan and Burundian troops are already present with the AU force that is shoring up the weak government. But analysts say the Kenyan plan predates the kidnappings, pointing out that Kenya has been pushing for the creation of a buffer state along its shared border with Somalia for more than two years.

During that time, the Kenyan military recruited and trained a pro-government militia nicknamed the "Jubaland" force. Last week they said they plan to push on to al-Shabab's main base in the port city of Kismayo and will stay in southern Somalia until al-Shabab is defeated.

In a sign of the political complexities surrounding the operation, the Somali president said Monday that the Kenyan military incursion is "inappropriate and unacceptable," contradicting a statement from both governments last week that they were working together.

"We welcome our collaboration with Kenya, but there are inappropriate things going on now. We want Kenya to help our troops, but don't want its troops just entering into Somalia. The Somali government and our people will not accept that," said President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed.

Analysts have long said that the Somali government, which currently only controls the capital, is wary of any potential rivals for its international patronage. It is also worried that Kenya might install its own administration in Kismayo.

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Associated Press writers Katharine Houreld in Nairobi, Abdi Guled in Mogadishu, Somalia, and Jenny Barchfield in Paris contributed to this report.