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Suspected Somali militia shoot down plane

BUSINESS
By | May 27th 2009

By Cyrus Ombati in Nairobi and Adow Jubat in Ijara

A military chopper went down as it patrolled the expansive and volatile Kenya-Somalia border after it was hit by what sources called "a hostile force".

Two pilots and a senior military officer, a Col Muteti who is in charge of the Northern region, were injured when the Hughes-MD500 chopper came down in Hulugho division in Ijara District, at about 3pm.

Speaking to The Standard in Masalani in Ijara District soon after the accident, local OCPD Remas Warui said there were two choppers that were coming from Kiyungi Military Base in Lamu to Hulugho Base which was opened in 2006 after Somalia’s Islamic Courts Union overran Mogadishu.

The OCPD said he believed the officers were on normal patrol since there has been movement of military personnel from Garissa to the new base.

Hulugho is only 17km from Somali’s border town of Kolbio, which is run by the Islamist militia – al-Shabaab.

The OCPD disputed claims that the chopper was shot down, saying it is bullet-proof. However, eyewitnesses on the ground said there was a bang before the crash.

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The injured were airlifted to the Forces Memorial Hospital in Nairobi soon after the incident.

Department of Defence (DoD) confirmed the incident, but said they did not know what caused the crash.

Brought down

Speaking to The Standard last evening, a source in the Army, who did not want to be named because he is not authorised to speak to the media, said without elaborating that the chopper — which had three passengers on board — was brought down by a hostile force.

However, other sources claimed that it was shot down by the al-Shabaab militia that operates freely in Somalia, a country that has been without a central government since 1991.

DoD Spokesman Bogita Ongeri downplayed the incident, saying it was too early to establish the cause of the crash. He dismissed the militia theory as propaganda.

The plane mishap happened just a day after four hooded gunmen kidnapped a Somali cleric seeking refuge in a Kenyan refugee camp.

Abdikadir Abdi, 60, was seized as he slept outside his makeshift shelter at Ifo camp and was bundled into a vehicle that sped toward the Somalia border.

Mr Hodan Abdi, his neighbour, told Reuters: "The incident has shocked the refugee community. It happened at about 2am. We fear for our lives."

Abdi said the kidnapped man was an outspoken cleric who had criticised the activities of al-Shabaab insurgents in a series of sermons at a mosque in the camp.

Ms Ann Campel, an official of the UN refugee agency at the camp, said details of the kidnap were still sketchy.

The accident also comes three weeks after Ijara DO 1 Abdullahi Galgalo warned residents, especially Government officers, against crossing over to Somalia.

However, DoD spokesman said the chopper could have caught fire had it been hit from the ground.

"This is a normal accident. We have not established the cause of the incident, but our experts are on the ground investigating," he told The Standard last evening.

Officially closed

Ongeri said the chopper was extensively damaged and the three soldiers on board managed to get out soon after it crashed.

The Kenya-Somalia border is officially closed and there are no activities going on.

Hughes-MD500 choppers are American and generally used by the Kenya Army personnel based at Nairobi’s Embakasi Garrison who usually patrol the border.

The chopper is a light aircraft and Kenya is the only country in Africa that uses it.

It had taken off from the nearby Hulugho airstrip, which serves as an operational base for police and army, for routine patrols and was headed back when the incident happened.

Patrols at the expansive border have been intensified in the past months as fighting between government soldiers and militants in Somalia continues.

The militants have in the past raided Kenyan territory and committed atrocities.

A series of air accidents have happened this year, the most recent only two weeks ago in Kapsabet.

Additional reporting by Beauttah Omanga

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