Kenya sent in more troops to fight al-Shabaab militants in southern Somalia on Friday as the African Union (AU) peacekeeping force in Mogadishu acknowledged 10 of its soldiers had died after a heavy battle against the rebels in the capital.
East African officials held an emergency meeting to discuss the deteriorating situation in Somalia, five days after troops from Kenya poured across the border in pursuit of kidnappers it said are linked to Somalia’s al-Shabaab rebels.
The Kenyan military said its forces had taken two towns, but a spokesman for a militia allied with the government in Mogadishu said the advance had been stalled by heavy rain.
Armored vehicles and trucks carrying weaponry, food supplies and tents were seen leaving four military camps and heading towards the Somali border on Thursday and Friday.
“More army men aboard military trucks are still passing here, heading to Somalia,” said Ali Barre, a resident at Diff village in Wajir South District, near the Kenyan-Somali border.
Somalia’s Western-backed government has claimed victories this year in the capital against al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda-linked rebel movement fighting to impose a strict form of Islamic law.
However, al-Shabaab fighters still hold some districts of the capital. Thursday saw a heavy battle in the capital’s Daynile District.
The African Union Mission to Somalia, the AU force fighting alongside Western-backed government troops, said at least 10 of its troops had been killed in battle in Mogadishu and that the final death toll could still climb.
Al-Shabaab displayed dozens of bodies in army fatigues to journalists late on Thursday, saying they were AU soldiers killed in the latest fighting in the capital. Reuters television filmed militants tossing bodies out of a truck.
The AU peace force, made up of about 9,000 troops from Burundi and Uganda, that defend the Mogadishu government, initially called the claims that large numbers of its troops were killed “propaganda.” However, it acknowledged on Friday taking casualties.
“As was to be expected, given Daynile’s significance, the operation has encountered heavy resistance, but steady progress is being made,” AU force commander Major General Fred Mugisha said in a statement.
After a spate of kidnappings of foreigners that have threatened neighboring Kenya’s tourism industry, Kenyan troops moved suddenly into southern Somalia on Sunday last week to try to secure the porous border from the al--Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab rebels.
Kenyan military spokesperson Emmanuel Chirchir said on Friday Kenyan troops had secured the border towns of Oddo and Kolbio, near the frontier.
Its large-scale incursion into Somalia makes Kenya the latest neighbor to become involved on the battlefield in a country that has not had an effective national government in nearly two decades.
Meanwhile, fighting on Thursday evening in Somalia left six Burundians dead according to the army and more than 70 according to al-Shabaab rebels who displayed dozens of bodies to witnesses.
Burundi, a tiny central African country struggling to emerge from more than a decade of civil war, is paying the price for its military intervention in Somalia as part of the African Union (AU) force.
After heavy fighting on Thursday between al-Shabaab fighters and Somali government troops backed by troops from the AU’s African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) force, al-Shabaab showed journalists several dozen dead bodies in Burundian military uniforms.
It is four years since AMISOM deployed to support the fragile transitional government al-Shabaab has been trying to topple.
The Burundian army dismissed the al-Shabaab claims as “propaganda,” but did not deny having suffered losses, admitting six men had been killed and 18 wounded, four of them seriously.
Asked whether Burundian soldiers had also been declared missing, Burundian Army spokesman Colonel Gaspard Baratuza said it was too early to say.
This is not the first major blow dealt to the Burundian contingent since it went into Somalia as part of the AMISOM force in 2008.
At least 43 Burundian soldiers were killed and about 100 wounded in Mogadishu in an offensive against al-Shabaab.
Another 10 died in an attack by al-Shabaab in September last year, while 17, including AMISOM’s second-in-command at the time, Burundian general Juvenal Niyonguruza, died in a double suicide attack in 2009.
Burundi and Uganda, who have deployed the 9,000 men who make up the AMISOM force, “have been keeping their losses secret since 2007 and they must have lost several hundred men by now,” said a regional analyst based in Nairobi.
“Morale is still good despite these setbacks ... the proof is that soldiers are still volunteering by the thousand for Somalia missions,” a senior Burundian officer said.
However, the soldiers are drawn largely by the opportunity for financial gain, with a soldier in the AMISOM force earning in one month what he would take a year-and-a-half to earn back home.
Moreover the family of a dead soldier receives a payment of US$50,000, according to officers in Mogadishu.
For Burundian political scientist and university professor Salathiel Muntunutwiwe, the run of bad luck can be explained by weaknesses in his country’s army.
“The current army was created in 2004 out of the former army and seven former rebel movements ... and it still has not become a professional integrated force,” he said. “The result is our soldiers go into Somalia for their own personal interest and that can lead them to commit fatal errors.”
He also questioned whether Burundi, one of the poorest countries in the world, was adequately equipped, adding that the contingent has no helicopters and few tanks.
Baratuza rejected all those arguments saying his men go into Somalia to serve a cause.
“Our soldiers are very well trained,” he said. “They are motivated by the prospect of helping restore peace in a country that is suffering the way Burundi suffered not so long ago.”
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