It is now believed that the two Spanish aid workers abducted in northern Kenya have been taken by the Somali al-Shabab rebel group and may already be in Somalia. The attack has led to a scaling down in aid efforts for the half a million Somali refugees in camps at Dadaab.
The news that the al-Shabab militia involved was given to the French news agency, AFP, by the regional police chief, Leo Nyongesa. “Two aid workers of Spainish nationality have been kidnapped by the Shabab,” Leo Nyongesa, regional police chief, he said on Thursday.
The Kenyan media is reporting an all-out search and enhanced security in areas bordering Somalia. But the effort is stretching Kenya’s security resources – with the police, army and now Kenya Wildlife Service, Navy and fisheries patrol vessels becoming involved in operations on land and at sea.
Military and police helicopters began a search yesterday in the border area, this was suspended overnight but resumed Friday morning, according to local officials. Poor visibility due to rain is hampering operations.
Al-Shabab has denied any involvement in the kidnapping, according to the al-Jazeera news channel. But the organization is active in the border areas of Kenya and Somalia, though the area is also a popular smuggling route for Somali-based gangs, who would use the kidnapping of foreign aid workers or tourists to extort ransom money.
Security problems for aid operations
A major problem for the aid agencies and local officials in the area is its remoteness and the logistical and financial problems of mounting effective security to protect the aid operation. Kenya has a relatively small army and navy and the areas that have to be patrolled are huge – with Somalia militias or gangs able t melt back across the border at will.
Many aid groups, including MSF, have to travel around the area without escorts and so are easy prey to kidnappers or armed groups. The Kenyan authorities have now closed the border area while they carry out the search but the aid organizations are clearly worried about their ability to keep operating in such an insecure area.
More details have emerged of what happened on Thursday – local officials thin k that three gunmen ambushed the MSF vehicle in a new but so far unpopulated section of Ifo camp. The Kenyan MSF driver was shot in the neck and the two Spainish women abducted. the driver is now recovering in hospital.
Suspension of all but life-saving services
A result of this and a number of previous attacks is that aid operations near the Kenya-Somalia border are being cut back temporarily, a UN spokesman told
the BBC. The UN’s Emmanuel Nyabera was quoted as saying all non-life-saving activities have been suspended, but the distribution of water, food and medical services is continuing.
About 500,000 peoplee have fled Somalia over the last few months to escape drought and conflict between al-Shabab and the forces supporting the weak Somali government. They are inside Kenya, relying on relief supplies and services from aid agencies operating in the camps around Dadaab.
Mr Nyabera, from the UN refugee agency, has told journalists that the suspension of the operations would last for a few days while the Kenyan government worked to improve in the area.
This is not the first attack on aid workers in the region. In September, a Kenyan driver working for Care was kidnapped in Dadaab. His whereabouts are still unknown.
As a result of the latest attack, the British-based charity Oxfam has temporarily suspended work in the camps. Its staff are remaining within a guarded compound until conditions have been reassessed and a decision can be made on resuming operations safely.
The kidnapping of the aid workers follows the recent abductions of a British woman and a French woman from tourist resorts on the northern Kenyan coast near Lamu. Both women are being held in Somalia. The kidnappers are seeking a ransom.
Some Western security experts believe that recent anti-piracy successes have led Somali criminal gangs to change their tactics to kidnapping people on land rather than seizing ships at sea.
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