November 12, 2011 / 12:08 PM / in 7 years

INTERVIEW-Eritrea is not Kenya's enemy, says envoy

* Eritrea denies funneling weapons to al Shabaab

* Kenya says Eritrea should denounce Islamist rebels

* Eritrea blames old foe Ethiopia for “fabrication”

By Richard Lough

NAIROBI, Nov 12 (Reuters) - Eritrea has no interest in weakening Kenya or harming its soldiers by supplying weapons to the al Qaeda-linked rebels Kenya is fighting in neighbouring Somalia, Eritrea’s envoy to Nairobi said on Saturday.

Kenya has accused Eritrea of flying weapons into Somalia for the Islamist al Shabaab insurgents, who have been fighting the Western-backed government in the Horn of Africa nation since 2007, and are now battling Kenyan forces in the south.

“These are ghost flights,” Eritrea’s ambassador to Kenya, Beyene Russom, told Reuters. “What do we gain by strengthening al Shabaab and weakening Kenya? We don’t want Kenyan troops to be harmed. We’re not Kenya’s enemy.”

Kenya says it has credible information that consignments of arms were flown to the Somali town of Baidoa and has pointed the finger at Eritrea, a charge Asmara has repeatedly denied.

Kenyan Colonal Cyrus Oguna told a news conference in Nairobi on Saturday the weapons consisted of shoulder-fired rockets, grenades and small arms munitions. He said they had been moved to areas in southern and central Somalia.

Kenya, the region’s biggest economy, sent troops into its anarchic neighbour last month to rout the insurgents it blames for kidnappings of Western aid workers and tourists on Kenyan soil, and frequent cross-border incursions.

Al Shabaab has denied responsibility for the seizures.

DON’T DENY, DENOUNCE

The U.N. has slapped an arms embargo on Eritrea, as well as a travel ban and an asset freeze on political and military leaders who it says are violating an arms embargo on Somalia.

The U.N. Security Council is expected to review calls for tighter sanctions against Eritrea later this month.

Eritrea’s envoy said all allegations about its support for al Shabaab should be viewed through the prism of its long-standing enmity with Ethiopia, and blamed Addis Ababa for peddling rumours about its support for the rebels.

The neighbours fought a brutal war that ended in 2000 but there is still a festering border dispute.

“This long history of allegations against Eritrea is Ethiopia’s fabrication. They want the world to forget their occupation of Eritrean territory and they want to weaken the government,” said Beyene.

A U.N.-founded boundary commission ruled the disputed territory belonged to Eritrea. It remains in Ethiopian hands.

“We are trying to clear our name against all these allegations in the U.N. Security Council. We are not being given the right to defend ourselves,” he said.

An official at Kenya’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Saturday Eritrean denials of sending arms to al Shabaab were not enough.

“It may not be sufficient for the state of Eritrea to deny these allegations. It is important that they go a step further and even denounce the activities of al Shabaab,” Lindsay Kiptiness, deputy director at the Horn of Africa division at the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

“We are still trying to engage the state of Eritrea to ensure that they are on our side with regard to these operations inside Somalia,” he said, adding the Eritrean foreign minister was due to visit Nairobi next week.

Kenya’s ministers have been touring the region in the past week to bolster support for its incursion into Somalia. They have visited Djibouti, Ethiopia, Uganda and Burundi.

Kiptiness said Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula was also visiting Arab countries, such as Oman and United Arab Emirates, that have supported Somalia’s transitional government. (Additional reporting and writing by David Clarke; Editing by Sophie Hares)

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