Nine Kenyan soldiers were killed yesterday in an intense battle after Al Shabaab militants struck their Kolbiyow camp in Somalia – in a similar attack as at El Adde last January. The soldiers were part of the African Union peace keeping force (Amisom) deployed near the Kenyan border.
The Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) spokesman Lt Col Paul Njuguna said the soldiers repulsed and killed 70 Al Shabaab militants. The KDF lost two officers and seven servicemen, while 15 injured soldiers were evacuated to Defence Forces Memorial Hospital Nairobi for further medical attention.
Lt Col Njuguna said the soldiers defended the military camp in the attempted attack by the terrorists who used two Vehicle Borne Improvised Devices (VBIED).
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Earlier, British newspaper The Guardian quoted the spokesman for Al Shabaab Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab saying that two fighters had driven suicide car bombs into the Kulbiyow base before others stormed it, killing the soldiers and seizing vehicles and weapons. “We have taken over the base,” he is quoted as saying. However, Kenya Defence Forces dismissed the claims as false.
“KDF soldiers repulsed the terrorists, killing scores. Currently, an intensive pacification operation is under way reinforced by our air and land forces,” Col Njuguna said in a statement.
Earlier, about eight bodies were received at the Moi Airbase at about 5pm, an officer who witnessed the arrival but cannot be named said. A small aircraft, a Harbin Y12, brought the bodies of the fallen soldiers hours after a military chopper dropped four survivors at Wilson Airport before they were evacuated by waiting ambulances. Njuguna denied claims by the militants that they had overrun the Kenyan base. He claimed that the soldiers fiercely engaged the militants who had attempted to attack the camp.
He dismissed accounts by the militant group which claimed that they had overrun the camp – a possible exaggeration considering past incidents. Insiders told The Standard on Saturday that other survivors were flown to Lamu’s Manda Island before being taken to a nearby military medical facility.
An estimated 120 Kenyan soldiers were at the camp together with “much fewer” personnel from the Somali National Army, and a nearby police base manned by officers drawn from the Administration Wing of Kenya’s National Police Service.
The Administration Police officers were among the first to respond following explosions at the military camp. The four survivors who were brought through Wilson Airport were said to be police officers.
Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab told Reuters that his group had completely destroyed the Kenyan camp and that the militants were still pursuing the KDF officers who ran off.
“Two mujahideen rammed suicide car bombs into the base in Kulbiyow town before storming it. After hand-to-hand fighting, we have taken over the base”. KDF has also denied this claim. It is also understood that some members of the militant group drove off with Kenyan lorries loaded with ammunition and military equipment before KDF surrounded the camp. They had also torched several trucks at the camp.
A Somali National Army officer who spoke to The Guardian described the gunfire that ensued after the explosions as intensive.
“We are yet to confirm the number of the Kenya and Somali soldiers lost in this attack. But I can say this was a disaster,” The Guardian quotes Captain Nur Muhidin who is also stationed at the Kulbiyow camp. Muhidin’s colleagues were among the casualties of the Friday morning attack which happened at the camp that is very close to the Kenyan border. “After they attacked, they took over the camp but KDF have now surrounded the base waiting for Special Forces to help take it back,” a source in Garissa, who is familiar with the operation said.
A brother to one of the Kenyan soldiers stationed at Kulbiyow camp poured out his frustration and confusion, especially after he and presumably other families were asked not to call the men at the battle.
He, however, defied the directive, but was only able to talk to some of his brother’s colleagues – who unfortunately did not know his whereabouts. “I do not know if he is dead, injured or captured. It is very difficult,” said the man on phone.
Yet another distraught man told The Standard on Saturday that he had managed to talk his brother who said KDF had rescued about 10 soldiers by mid-afternoon. However, there were fears that the militants were holding an unknown number of soldiers hostage with intent to use them as human shields in the event of an attack by Amisom.
“They had set traps on their way in. Some of the landmines blew off some of our men who were going in for rescue. The fighting was still on at 3pm and had been surrounded by our troops,” he said.
The camp was manned by soldiers from the Mariakani Barracks in Mombasa, commonly known as the 15th Kenya African Rifles (KAR) Battalion. Al Shabaab fighter are also reported to have set booby traps made of landmines that blew up an unknown number of police officers who responded to the distress calls after the initial twin explosions.
EL ADDE AMBUSH
Sources said the attack was a copycat of the January 15, 2016, ambush that left more than 173 soldiers dead at El Adde in January. At least 13 others were kidnapped – according to survivor accounts, suggesting that Kenya may not have taken lessons from the bloodiest attack.
Last evening, military sources that could not be named because they are not authorised to speak to journalists said a special unit had been deployed to break the siege the terrorists had laid on the camp.
A policeman, who has previously been stationed at camp, told The Standard on Saturday that there is an Administration Police (AP) and regular police stations near the military camp. Quoting the colleagues who are still in Somalia, the officer said the explosion may have been intended to provoke the men to respond from their respective covers.
“The police who were injured were responding to a distress call when they realised the KDF camp had was under attack. But they were blown up by the landmines as they drew close,” said the policeman.
KDF were later in the day reported to have deployed massively and surrounded the attackers who are still within the vicinity of the camp.
The office said Hughulo has a market that is shared by Kenyans and Somali nationals. “It is difficult to differentiate a Kenyan Somali from a Somali national,” he said.
Kenya has sent more than 3,600 troops to the battle in Somalia where they are on a counterinsurgency alongside soldiers from several East African nations in the UN-backed government tackle against Al Shabaab. About 300 Al Shabaab militants attacked the KDF base in El Adde on the dawn of January 15 last year, detonating huge bombs mounted on two 4X4 vehicles.
The explosion ripped through the barricade at the gates, killing most of the soldiers on night guard before more militants joined in, firing indiscriminately in an intensive battle that lasted for hours.
Most of the Kenyan soldiers were still asleep in the ambush that would mark the worst ever military loss for Kenya. KDF has been accused of concealing the truth about the attack, where survivors place the number of casualties at 173 even though the official count is only 141.
An estimated 13 soldiers were taken as prisoners of war, with two having been paraded by the militants in propaganda videos posted to intimidate Kenya into withdrawing its troops from Somalia.
KDF entered Somalia in October 2011 in a response to the insurgency of Al Shabaab within Kenya, including the abduction of tourists along the Coastal destinations.
Several retaliation attacks have since been staged within Kenya including the massacre at Garissa University in 2015 where 147, mostly students, were butchered, and the Westgate Shopping Mall siege at the heart of Nairobi’s Westlands business hub in September 2013. Official records place the casualties of the Westgate attack at 67.