Kenyan army steps in as cattle rustling turns lethal

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Kenya's northern borders are becoming a battleground as local warriors and soldiers fight pitched battles with hundreds of Ugandan and Ethiopian cattle rustlers trying to steal livestock and weapons.

In the latest incident, warriors from the Turkana tribe, assisted by the Kenyan army, killed 40 members of a band of 200 marauding Ugandans, who crept into Kenya on Tuesday night to attack and rob the Turkana community.

The massacre was one of an alarming series of rustling incidents that have turned the arid lands of northern Kenya into a virtual war zone. Although cattle rustling has a long history in the region, the increasingly ferocious battles taking place have forced the Kenyan government to seek a military solution to the problem, sending army units to the traditionally neglected north-east.

Last week, more than 70 Kenyans, including 22 schoolchildren, were killed when warriors crossed into north-east Kenya from Ethiopia to steal cattle and seek revenge for earlier attacks. In both incidents, the wounded had to be taken several miles down dirt roads to the nearest medical facilities.

Across the border in Uganda, 12 civilians and seven soldiers were killed during two days of fighting between the Ugandan army and local cattle-rustling warriors. Police in both Uganda and Kenya have erected roadblocks to prevent the attackers leaving the region.

The aggressors in the most recent attack stormed the border village of Lokiriama and stole around 40 cattle before the local tribesmen struck back. But the Ugandan army, which has struggled to control the warrior tribes inside the country, had earlier given a tip-off to their Kenyan counterparts.

"We learnt about the planned attack and we contacted our colleagues in Lodwar [in Kenya] so they would not be taken unawares," said a Ugandan army spokesman, Gabriel Lomongin. "The Turkanas and the army in Kenya killed about 40 of them, including one notorious warrior." The pastoral tribes around the Kenyan, Sudanese, Ethiopian and Ugandan borders have a long history of cattle raiding, and warriors from all communities often fight for livestock and access to water. Teenage boys go through elaborate rituals and extensive training to become warriors who can increase clan wealth.

In recent decades, the clashes have become more violent as water sources have dried up and rifles have replaced traditional bows and arrows. Warriors also now seek to steal guns, as well as livestock, in the raids. As a result, battles between tribes are becoming increasingly lethal.

"Cattle rustling is part of a cultural game for all nomads in this part of the world," said Chief Steve Barnabas Lochila, a Turkana community leader. "It is a hobby that young men take up to amuse themselves, but conditions have now become so harsh that it has become a matter of life and death. The civil wars in Uganda and Sudan have helped us all to buy weapons to fight each other properly."

In the past, the Kenyan government has relied on international aid agencies to provide essential community services such as schools and hospitals. The Turkana in particular are bitter at being ignored by the aid agencies that have moved into their region to help refugees from nearby southern Sudan. But the recent increase in violence has put pressure on the Kenyan government to secure the country's porous borders and protect local communities there.

Last month, the Kenyan and Ugandan governments began a programme to disarm tribes on both sides of the border, but they have so far only managed to recover a fraction of the weapons in the region.

The Ugandan army had tried in the past to encourage the warriors to voluntarily give up their guns but now say that they will disarm the pastoralists forcibly. A recent survey suggests there are still 150,000 unlicensed guns circulating in the area.