Kenyan troops will stay in southern Somalia until Kenyans feel safe again, the chief of Kenya's armed forces said today, raising questions about whether Kenya risks becoming bogged down in an open-ended occupation of its war-ravaged neighbour.
That problem eventually forced both UN and Ethiopian forces to withdraw from Somalia, though Gen. Julius Karangi told reporters that Kenya does not have a timeframe for leaving. Kenyan sent troops into Somalia earlier this month to fight al-Qa'ida-linked al-Shabab militants.
"When the Kenya government and the people of this country feel that they are safe enough from the al-Shabab menace, we shall pull back," Karangi said. "Key success factors or indicators will be in the form of a highly degraded al-Shabab capacity."
But Karangi says Kenya has no interest in permanently occupying Somalia and is working alongside the weak UN-backed Somali government, which only holds the capital with the help of 9,000 African Union soldiers. The Somali president has criticized the Kenyan intervention but Kenyan officials said they expected "clarification" from a high-level Somali delegation on Monday.
Kenya sent troops into Somalia following a string of cross-border attacks and kidnappings blamed on Somali gunmen. Kenya also hosts around 600,000 Somali refugees who have fled the fighting and famine in their homeland. The government is deeply worried about the rapidly swelling refugee camps in the north, which it considers a severe security problem.
So far Kenya has suffered one fatality due to al-Shabab fire, Karangi said, although five people were killed when their helicopter crashed. He said hundreds of al-Shabab were believed to be killed although he had no way of confirming that directly.
Karangi says that although Kenya has bilateral military agreements with countries like the United States and Britain, those allies are not directly militarily involved in the incursion into Somalia.
"There has been a lot of talk about other friends of ours participating militarily in what we are engaged in, and the answer is no," he said. "I think the American ambassador yesterday made it very clear ... that they are not militarily involved in the campaign with us."
AU troops have been in Somalia since 2007 and now control almost all the capital. But they still suffer almost daily attacks. Several gunmen tried to storm one of their bases in the capital on Saturday, a spokesman said.
The gunmen were stopped by AU troops when they tried to enter the base, said Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda. A reporter for The Associated Press near the scene said the gunfight was still going on as he spoke with Ankunda and that casualties were unclear.
Resident Mohammed Abdi says he heard several large explosions near the base but it was not clear what caused them.
Somalia has not had a functioning government since warlords overthrew a socialist dictator in 1991. AP