DHOBLEY, Somalia, Aug 16 (Reuters) - From a cluster of tents in southern Somalia’s arid wastelands, Sheikh Ahmed Madobe commands a militia battling to repel Islamist rebels from the border of his country’s anxious neighbour, Kenya.
Alongside Somali government troops, Madobe’s Raskamboni fighters — some of them look more like teenage boys — police an uneasy peace in Dhobley, a windswept, dusty town just a few kilometres from Kenya’s eastern frontier.
East Africa’s biggest economy has long cast a wary eye at Somalia, and is struggling to secure a porous border with its lawless neighbour that stretches hundreds of kilometres through deserted wilderness.
Keen to avoid a spillover of violence by al Qaeda-trained foreign jihadists seeking haven in Somalia as well as al Shabaab rebels entrenched in the south, Nairobi wants to create a buffer zone.
Kenya has already trained thousands of newly recruited Somali soldiers to man the frontier. It also provides logistical and intelligence support to Somali government troops.
“Dhobley is the first area we secured, pushing out al Shabaab. We expect in the coming days to push them out of the region,” said the soft-faced Sheikh Dahir, one of Madobe’s lieutenants.
Madobe was a senior member of an Islamist administration routed from power by Ethiopian forces in late 2006, early 2007. He later turned his guns on his former allies to side with the U.N.-backed government.
Dhobley’s buildings carry the pock-marked scars of intense gunbattles in April this year when Raskamboni and government forces regained control of the town from the al Qaeda-affiliated al Shabaab group.
Another fighter says Kenya provided weaponry.
“They (Kenya) help with many things including guns and bullets. Without that support, how could we have beaten them?,” said a Raskamboni intelligence officer, Major Abdikadir Bashir.
After al Shabaab withdrew from Mogadishu earlier this month, plagued by deep rifts among senior commanders and financial difficulties, Dhobley’s pro-government combatants are itching to take the fight to insurgent forces nearby.
The gunmen traipse around the drought-ravaged scrub in their box-fresh uniforms, wrapped in belts of high calibre bullets waiting, they say, for the order to push into al Shabaab-controlled territory where Islamist units are now hunkered down in the surrounding countryside.
The Somali militias’ enthusiasm to fight al Shabaab is welcomed by Nairobi, which has had to contend with threats by the Islamist rebels that they would attack Kenyan targets.
“Kenya and its (regional) partners are interested in keeping al Shabaab at bay so they can’t ... reinforce their terrorist activities,” said Kenyan government spokesman Alfred Mutua.
Technically, the Kenyan-Somali border has been closed since 2007.
But the frontier sees plenty of activity, from an influx of famine-struck refugees to the regular smuggling of contraband, highlighting Kenya’s exposure to infiltration by al Shabaab fighters.
Kenya is so worried by the anarchy in Somalia, where first warlords then Islamist insurgents have stepped into a political vacuum, that it has even gone so far as supporting — quietly — the birth of a semi-autonomous Somali province dubbed ‘Jubaland’, comprised of the three Somali regions bordering Kenya.
But Jubaland’s status is far from clear.
Politicians from either side of the border named former Somali defence minister Mohamed Abdi Mohamed as Jubaland’s president. Mohamed, however, spends his time in Nairobi and has shown no inclination to take up his post across the border.
Kenya’s Mutua denied his government had been the driving force behind the Jubaland project but said self-governed regions would help bring stability.
“‘Jubaland’ remains nothing more than a fantasy played out by ineffectual Somali politicians marooned in Nairobi,” said J Peter Pham, director of the think-tank Atlantic Council.
Somalia’s government has condemned the initiative, warning it would fracture further the already chaotic country. “We have never supported it,” government spokesman Abdirahman Omar Osman told Reuters in an email.
Ethiopia, a key regional player in efforts to stabilise the Horn of Africa, fears a proliferation of self-governed regions in Somalia might encourage its own ethnic Somali population to fight harder for autonomy.
Al Shabaab may have beaten a retreat from Mogadishu, but it remains a potent force, analysts say, not least in its southern strongholds where the government exercises no authority.
“Unless al Shabaab becomes significantly weaker in this region, I don’t see any force that has the military muscle to create this buffer zone,” said David Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia. (Editing by Yara Bayoumy)