Eritrea has rejected Kenyan suspicions that it may be arming Islamist al Shabaab rebels in Somalia, as a diplomatic row between the two countries intensifies.
Kenya’s Foreign Affairs Minister Moses Wetangula said on Friday he had summoned the Eritrean ambassador and “raised concerns about intelligence that we have and information available that there is a possibility that arms supplies are flowing from his country to al Shabaab”.
He said Kenya, whose troops are fighting the al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab militant in southern Somalia, had “a series of options”, which he did not specify, to deal with the alleged arms supplies.
“The Government of Eritrea finds extremely regrettable the remarks attributed to the foreign minister of Kenya … regarding the fabricated story of Eritrean arms shipments to al Shabaab in Somalia,” Eritrea’s foreign ministry said in a statement dated November 5.
Eritrea denies arming the fighters and says such allegations are stirred up by regional rivals to sully its reputation.
It described Kenya’s implied threat of action as “unfortunate” ahead of an anticipated visit to Kenya by its own foreign minister.
Kenya deployed troops inside Somalia three weeks ago to crush the al Shabaab militants it blames for a wave of kidnappings in Kenya and frequent cross-border attacks.
Nairobi has warned of air strikes on a number of rebel bases across southern and central Somalia in response to what is said were reports Eritrea had flown consignments of weapons into the militant enclave of Baidoa.
One of al Shabaab’s top commanders told worshippers on Sunday the insurgents would not surrender their key strongholds, even if subjected to aerial bombardments.
“Kenya’s fighter jets will never seize our towns, but they may injure or kill a few people,” Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys said in Almada, in the outskirts of the capital Mogadishu, after leading prayers to mark the Muslim festival of Eid.
Kenya has long cast a wary eye at its lawless neighbour, awash with weapons and mired in conflict since the overthrow of a dictator in 1991.
The region’s biggest economy is so worried by the anarchy in Somalia, where first warlords then Islamist insurgents have stepped into a political vacuum, that it has quietly supported the birth of a semi-autonomous Somali province dubbed ‘Jubaland’, comprising the three Somali regions bordering Kenya.
The status of Jubaland, also sometimes called Azania, is not clear. Somalia’s government says it does not support the Jubaland initiative.
Kenya’s military has denied its incursion was carefully planned for years with a view to annexing Somali territory that could act as a buffer zone between the two countries.
Al Shabaab thinks otherwise.
“Let them not deceive you with Azania. It is a Christian state, take care,” said Aweys, whose militants are fighting to impose a hardline version of Sharia law on Somalia.