MOGADISHU - Agence France-Presse
Al-Shabab fighters display weapons as they conduct military exercises in northern Mogadishu, Somalia. AP Photo.
Kenyan forces thrust deep into southern Somalia for the first time in years today to hunt Al Qaeda-inspired fighters blamed for a spate of kidnappings, raising fears of a regional escalation.
Backed by aerial bombings and guided by pro-government Somali forces, Kenyan troops moved deeper into Somalia, a day after Nairobi declared war on the Shebab militia and confirmed that it had sent its army across the border.
Kenyan soldiers were reported near the village of Qoqani, some 50 miles inside southern Somalia, a Shebab stronghold.
"The Kenyan troops supported by tanks and other military vehicles have taken up positions near Qoqani," said Saleban Mohamed, an elder in a nearby village.
"I saw around 32 trucks and tanks, with hundreds of troops," he added.
"The Kenyan soldiers are heavily armed and they have started digging trenches near Qoqani," Abdulahi Sayid Adam, another witness said.
Kenya confirmed Sunday its forces has crossed the border into war-torn Somalia to fight hardline Shebab forces they accuse of kidnapping foreigners, provoking a grim warning from the Al-Qaeda linked insurgents.
"Kenya violated the territorial rights of Somalia by entering our holy land, but I assure you that they will return disappointed, God willing," Sheikh Hassan Turki, a senior Shebab leader, said late Sunday. "Mujahideen fighters will force them to test the pain of the bullets." Shebab fighters were reported Monday to be boosting defences and sending "hundreds" of fighters towards Kenyan and government positions.
"I saw around 50 trucks and pickup trucks mounted with machine guns, with hundreds of fighters heading towards the Kenyan border," Abdi Jumale, a resident in the Shebab-held port of Kismayo told AFP by telephone.
Shebab commanders confiscated at least a hundred trucks late Sunday from the Lower Shabelle region, outside the capital Mogadishu, to transport gunmen southwards towards the battle zones, witnesses said.
"Many trucks were taken by Shebab from civilians to transport fighters, they are heading towards the Juba regions," a witness in Shebab-held Afgoye district told AFP, asking not to be named for security reasons.
"They have collected all weapons near Afgoye, and gathered hundreds of young fighters to face their enemy," another witness said.
"They were addressing the fighters and said that new enemy has crossed into Somalia border," he added.
The assault followed Kenya's Internal Security Minister George Saitoti branding Shebab fighters "the enemy" and vowed to attack them "wherever they will be." In the past five weeks a British woman and a French woman have been abducted from beach resorts in two separate incidents, dealing a major blow to Kenya's tourism industry.
On Thursday, two female Spanish aid workers were seized by gunmen from Kenya's crowded Dadaab refugee camp, the world's largest with some 450,000 mainly Somali refugees.
The Shebab had long refrained from carrying out attacks inside Kenya, which observers argued was useful to them as a logistical and financial base.
While Kenya troops have frequently been reported to have crossed the long porous border in recent years, Nairobi never confirmed any involvement and was always cautious to minimise its exposure to reprisals.
In July 2010, the Shebab group claimed responsibility for suicide attacks in central Kampala that killed at least 76 people in what it said was retaliation for Uganda's leading role in the Mogadishu-based African peace force.
The Shebab had repeatedly warned similar attacks would target any regional power sending forces to support the Western-backed Somali government.