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Kenya poised to intervene in Somalia

It has massed troops on the Somali border. Islamist militias have threatened retaliation if Kenya acts.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / June 25, 2009

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With troops massed on the Somali border and heavy artillery being moved into position, Kenya appears ready to join – if necessary – the Ethiopians in an armed intervention in Somalia.

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Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki called together his National Defense and Security Council in Nairobi yesterday, and while Interior Minister George Saitoti assured Kenyans that Kenya would not intervene in Somalia, it was clear that other ministers and defense officials were preparing for such a step.

Prime Minister Raila Odinga – a former opposition leader now serving in a coalition government with Mr. Kibaki's party – urged East African nations to consider sending troops to Somalia to bolster the United Nations-backed transitional government against the ongoing onslaught of Islamist militias.

Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula echoed the sentiment, and said that Somalia's crisis had become for Kenyans a matter of national security.

"It will be most inappropriate and inadvisable to do nothing when our national security and regional stability is threatened," he said.

Islamist militias threaten to retaliate

An intervention by Kenya would be risky. Kenya is home to hundreds of thousands of ethnic Somalis, and has become a begrudging host to thousands more Somali refugees, many of whom may take offense from an intervention by Kenya in Somalia.

Islamist militias in Somalia have specifically threatened to launch terrorist attacks in Nairobi if Kenya sends in its troops, and Kenya's rather lax security apparatus is thought by many security experts to be inadequate to meet the challenge.

Yet Kenyan politicians may be more cognizant of the political rewards of intervention than the risks, particularly at a time when the government faces internal divisions and mounting scandals, and may see a military intervention as a new lease on life.

"For Kenya, [the thought of intervention] is getting many people scratching their heads: 'What happened to the old pragmatism?' " says Rashid Abdi, a Horn of Africa specialist at the International Crisis Group in Nairobi.

When the government loses the ability to negotiate domestic issues, he adds, such as a new constitution, or burgeoning corruption scandals, "they hark for adventures abroad. 'If other countries can do this, why can't Kenya?' they think."