ISIOLO, Kenya (Reuters) - Kenyan and Ethiopian troops could attack Somali rebel group al Shabaab inside the Horn of Africa nation following the rebel’s latest threat to strike at Kenya, security sources said on Monday.
The al Shabaab group, which claims ties to al Qaeda and has been waging a four-year insurgency against Somalia’s government, said on Sunday it would strike at neighbouring Kenya for training Somali government forces and allowing Ethiopian troops to operate from its towns.
Tens of thousands of Kenyans have been fleeing a border town after shells fired during fighting on the Somali side of the frontier landed near a hospital and a police station on the Kenyan side. An official with a group representing aid organisations said one Kenyan had died and 20 had been wounded.
The al Shabaab militia has been stung after Somali forces backed by government-friendly militia struck at the insurgents’ strongholds in the capital Mogadishu and in southern Somalia, where the rebels control the border town of Balad Hawa, a stone’s throw away from the Kenyan town of Mandera and Ethiopia.
Somali troop numbers have been bolstered by the deployment of hundreds of new recruits trained in Kenya and Ethiopia.
The new government offensive has seen Somali forces claw back parts of Mogadishu.
Fleeing residents said Mandera resembled a military camp.
“We expect a major offensive any moment from tonight,” said a Kenya military officer at the frontier with Somalia.
“The plan to enter Somalia and confront al Shaabab is the only way to protect our territory. Kenya has no option it must fight this group right inside Somalia,” the source added.
Security sources said a convoy of Somali soldiers trained in Kenya backed by Kenyan troops had arrived at the border on Sunday night where they were camping, ready for the incursion.
However, Kenya’s government spokesman said the country’s troops would not launch strikes inside Somalia.
“There is no such plan (to attack inside Somalia). We have police and security forces there to ensure the fighting does not spill over into Kenya,” Alfred Mutua told Reuters in Nairobi.
A Kenyan Treasury official said on Monday the country was seeking parliament’s approval for extra spending on security along Kenya’s frontier with Somalia.
The al Shabaab has said in the past that it would attack Kenya but so far has yet to do so. Last year, the group bombed Uganda in twin attacks that killed nearly 80 people in retaliation for Kampala providing peacekeeping troops that have helped Somalia’s government stay in power.
Al Qaeda has already hit Kenya in two major attacks, in 1998 and 2002.
Kenyan Police Commissioner Matthew Iteere urged Kenyans to be more vigilant, and called for tighter security at shopping malls, hotels and in public transport vehicles.
“We are not taking this threat lightly,” he said.
The fighting in Somalia’s Balad Hawa has paralysed activities across the border in Mandera and forced residents to seek refuge in towns away from the porous frontier.
Issack Dualle of the Mandera NGO Forum, representing non-governmental organisations, said aid agencies had closed their operations and moved to other towns for fear of attacks, paralysing relief operations.
“It’s a total disaster, almost half of Mandera town residents, about 40,000 people, have moved from the border,” Dualle told Reuters.
“The fear is real, a number of houses have been damaged, at least 20 people have been injured, one Kenyan killed, all schools, banks and government offices have been closed.”