Kenya closed its border with Somalia yesterday, as Somali and Ethiopian troops pursued Islamist fighters in the south of the country and European officials called for an international peacekeeping effort to prevent instability in Somalia from triggering a regional crisis.
Many of the Islamist militias routed by Ethiopian-led forces backing Somalia’s transitional government have fled towards the Kenyan border, where the Nairobi government has promised to prevent fighters from crossing and regrouping in Kenyan territory.
A Kenyan government official told the Financial Times that refugees were still being allowed across the border under tight security but said the frontier was otherwise closed.
Several hundred suspected militants had been prevented from crossing the border on Tuesday. The United Nations refugee agency expressed concern yesterday over reports that Somalis fleeing fighting were being forced back by Kenya.
Isaiya Kabira, an official in the Kenyan president’s office, said: “An unstable Somalia is not to our advantage at all. We are definitely concerned but we think the situation is starting to stabilise.”
Officials at a European Union meeting in Brussels urged Somalia’s transitional government to seize the moment to negotiate with opposition forces and widen its support to pave the way for the deployment of a peacekeeping force.
“It is important we create the conditions whereby Ethiopia can withdraw,” said John Sawers, a Foreign Office official, adding it was unlikely that a pull-out would be possible within the two weeks suggested by Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian prime minister.
There are fears that the longer Ethiopia’s troops remain in Somalia, the less popular they will become. But there is little appetite for another UN peacekeeping mission after the ill-fated operation of the early 1990s, and a regional force is more likely under either the African Union or IGAD, a regional development body. So far only Uganda and Nigeria have indicated willingness to participate.
The US was planning yesterday to re-establish a presence in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, after an absence of more than 12 years following the humiliating withdrawal of US and UN forces in the mid-1990s after bloody fighting with local militias.
Jendayi Frazer, the US assistant secretary of state, was expected to arrive in Nairobi on the first stop of a regional tour that would include stops in Mogadishu and Addis Ababa, a US official told the Financial Times.
The US provided tacit support to the Ethiopian army in its battle against the Islamist militia, which Washington accuses of harbouring al-Qaeda militants.
Ms Frazer will join senior officials of the Somalia contact group meeting in Nairobi tomorrow to mobilise international assistance for the interim government. The group, set up at US insistence last year, includes the African Union, Arab League and US as well as Norway and the EU.
Despite some relief among western countries over the success of Somalia’s Ethiopian-backed transitional government in driving out the Islamist movement, concerns are growing about the risk of a security vacuum.
Analysts have warned that Ethiopia could be drawn into a guerrilla-type insurgency. There are also fears that continued conflict and instability in Somalia might precipitate a regional crisis.