by Staff Writers
Tabda, Somalia (AFP) Feb 22, 2012
Draped in belts of bullets and carrying a machine gun, Kenyan soldier Philip Namanda peers out into the shimmering heat of the yellow scrubland of southern Somalia, waiting for guerrilla attacks.
"It's tough work, but we are tough soldiers," Namanda says, an infantry soldier based in the sun-blasted outpost of Tabda, some 80 kilometres (50 miles) inside war-torn southern Somalia, where Kenya invaded in October.
Nairobi sent tanks and troops into Somalia four months ago to crush Al-Qaeda allied Shebab insurgents in retaliation, it said, for attacks on Kenya.
But despite initial progress, movement since has been slow -- invasion orders were given in the rainy season when vehicles were bogged down in mud, while now the land is bone dry, soldiers are harried by Shebab guerrilla attacks.
Kenya's forward base lies some 40 kilometres (25 miles) east at Beles Qoqani, but troops here at Tabda still appear nervous in their sandbagged trenches.
A gruesome Shebab propaganda video released last week -- but filmed a month before Kenya's invasion -- shows fierce firefights as Shebab gunmen on pickups mounted with heavy machine guns mow down Kenyan-backed Somali militiamen.
But air strikes and ground assaults have now forced the Shebab to break into small groups launching "probing attacks and ambushes," said Brigadier Johnson Ondieki, a senior commander. Yet the assault still appears to have stalled.
Officers insist that morale is high. Soldiers have scrawled slogans across their helmets, apparently inspired by Hollywood films of US troops in Vietnam. "Permitted to Kill," one reads. "Warrior" reads another.
Yet there is no swift or easy victory in sight. Namanda lifts his heavy helmet -- revealing a polka-dot bandana -- to show his message written in marker pen, the names of his three children and his wife.
"I'm a family man and I miss them," the 32-year old said, assigned to guard journalists on a military organised trip.
But Lieutenant Colonel Jeff Nyagah, commander of this battle sector, dismisses criticism of slow progress, saying that his soldiers could swiftly take major rebel-held towns, but the army was winning "hearts and minds."
"We could move forward and capture towns and territory off Al-Shebab tomorrow, but what would happen?," Nyagah told reporters.
"Al-Shebab would mingle with the people and attack, so we are doing a pacification operation to ensure they don't disrupt the gains we have made."
Kenya also appears hesitant to follow the example of Ethiopia's 2006-2009 US-backed invasion, when some 30,000 men poured into the anarchic country at civil war for over 20 years, only to retreat from a bloody insurgency.
Funding the costly military operations is a problem too, and combat soldiers grumble their salaries are delayed.
Drumming up support for Kenyan troops to join the African Union force -- and thereby easing funding issues -- is a key aim of Nairobi at an international conference in London on Thursday hoping to tackle Somalia's multiple crises.
The force's 10,000 men from Uganda, Burundi and Djibouti are battling the Shebab in the Somali capital, while Ethiopian troops and tanks are separately attacking the extremists from the south and west.
Kenya also realises that defeating Shebab fighters militarily is only part of the battle towards ensuring stability for southern Somalia, with which it shares a 680-kilometre (420-mile) porous border.
"In the liberated areas... there are inadequate food supplies and medical facilities, a lack of clean water," said Ondieki, appealing for aid agencies to move in behind the Kenyans.
So far locals in Tabda say that while security has improved, the benefits are few, while aid agencies are fearful of the fierce battles still raging.
Locals seem wary but largely supportive of the Kenyans, who have allied themselves with an anti-Shebab Somali militia force here.
"The security is better, but medicine and food supplies have been blocked by the fighting," said Mohamed Mahmud, an elder, as Kenyan troops milled around.
As night falls on Liboi, the last Kenyan outpost before the Somali border, soldiers bed down in canvas tents.
Kenya's "inexperienced boys have become so petrified of the daily assaults by the mujahideen, that even mere rustle of leaves curdles their blood," one Shebab message earlier this month taunted on the insurgent's Twitter site read.
Soldiers in the camp scoff at Shebab threats with bravado, but as sentries strap on their body armour and man their weapons for the long night ahead, a real threat remains.
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Jonas Savimbi's charisma, brutality still haunt 10 years on
Johannesburg (AFP) Feb 21, 2012
Jonas Savimbi, the vicious, charismatic rebel who fought Angola's socialist government in a 27-year civil war, died 10 years ago Wednesday, leaving behind a haunting legacy of violence. Savimbi was killed in a firefight with government forces on February 22, 2002, the denouement of a brutal conflict that grew out of Angola's messy independence from Portugal in 1975 and lasted until the signi ... read more
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