Kenya closes Somalia border

Nairobi fears violence could spread, but denies turning back refugees

January 04, 2007|By New York Times News Service

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BAIDOA, Somalia --Kenyan officials announced yesterday that they were closing their northern border because of the conflict in Somalia, but denied that they had turned back hundreds of refugees.

For the past few days, Ethiopian-led forces have been hunting down the remnants of Somalia's once-powerful Islamic movement, pushing fighters steadily south toward the Kenyan border.

Ethiopian officials have said that the Islamist fighters are headed to a remote jungle outpost called Ras Kamboni, which suspected terrorists have used before as a hide-out.

It appears that Somalia's problems have sucked in yet another country, and with the final throes of the conflict on their doorstep, Kenyan officials in the capital, Nairobi, said they had no choice but to act.

"We needed to close the border so we could closely vet all refugees," said Alfred N. Mutua, a spokesman for the Kenyan government.

But Mutua denied news reports and accusations from United Nations officials that Kenyan border guards had deported 600 Somalis seeking asylum, saying that the closure applied only to cross-border trade and nonrefugee traffic, to prevent the Islamists from slipping into the country.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres told Agence France-Presse yesterday that Kenya "has a humanitarian obligation to allow civilians at risk to seek asylum on its territory."

Mutua said 10 foreign Islamist fighters were caught Monday trying to cross the border amid a throng of refugees. The fighters were carrying briefcases packed with cash.

Kenyan officials said the fighters probably had been financiers of Somalia's Islamist movement, which was routed last week by Ethiopian soldiers supporting Somalia's transitional government.

As hundreds of Somalis continue to line up at the border each day, hoping for asylum, Kenya has buttressed its patrols with more troops and helicopters.

Residents on the Kenyan side of the border have reported skirmishes in Kenya, but Mutua said that was not the case.

"We're just trying to make sure none of the problems from Somalia spill across the border, and so far none has," Mutua said.

In Mogadishu, Somalia's battle-scarred capital, several weapons were collected yesterday in the transitional government's drive to disarm one of the most heavily armed citizenries in the world.

On Monday, Ali Mohammed Gedi, the transitional prime minister, issued one of his first edicts, demanding that Somali warlords and gunmen turn in their military weapons by Thursday. If they did not, he said, homes would be searched.

Elders from one of Mogadishu's more powerful subclans surrendered a pickup truck equipped with an antiaircraft gun and 20 young fighters. Transitional government officials said the weapons and men would be folded into Somalia's new national army.

Meanwhile, Islamist leaders continued to insist that they had not been defeated.

"I cannot say where we are, but we are in Somalia and we are not afraid anymore," Abdulrahim Ali Modei, the Islamists' spokesman, said yesterday in a telephone call to a Somali radio station.

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