Residents flee Boni Forest as anti-Al Shabaab operation begins

About 100 families have fled Basuba and forested areas in northern Lamu County and southern Garissa as police and military forces seek to flush out Islamist militants hiding in Boni Forest.

Many of those fleeing Boni Forest are ethnic Boni, Watta or Wasanye, who are mainly hunter-gatherer communities.

"They fear being caught in the crossfire and are moving to what they perceive to be safer ground," Musa Hassan, a Kenya Red Cross Society official in charge of Lamu and Kilifi counties said yesterday. The exodus began on Friday when security forces began camping in the three areas in the two counties and were said to be continuing with the start of aerial and ground attacks in the forest on Saturday evening.

The Standard has established that about 600 military and police fofficers and forest rangers are involved in the operation, said to have been launched in Mangai and Baure in northern Lamu and Bodhai and Hulugho, where ground forces in open trucks and armoured personnel carriers had established camps.

Terrorists have been active in these areas since May 12 when they first destroyed a military vehicle at Korahindi, Ijara coming from Garissa.

And yesterday Ijara OCPD Christopher Rotich confirmed that the Kenya Defence Forces, General Service Unit and regular police have already arrived in the area. He asked the residents, whose economy depended on the forests, to leave and those who possessed illegal arms to surrender them before they are forcefully taken away.

Intelligence sources say about 300 militants, including foreign fighters and recruits from Mombasa, Kilifi and other parts of Kenya, belong to Jaysh Ayman, a cell within Al Shabaab, and live in Boni forest. They are believed to be armed with rifles but also have some rocket propelled grenades and machine guns.

Meanwhile, local leaders in Lamu yesterday welcomed the anti-Al Shabaab operation but urged the forces to exercise restraint.

Democratic Party Acting Chairman Rishad Amana said that the move by the Government to declare Boni Forest a dangerous zone yet it is inhabited by the Boni could be counter productive.