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Somali insurgency driving thousands of refugees to Kenya

Islamist militias' clashes with Somalia's government has forced more than 25,000 to flee.

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Not everyone thinks that the focus on piracy has hurt refugees.

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The top UN diplomat for Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, said that the surge in piracy – some 100 ships have been attacked in the Indian Ocean so far this year, nearly as many as in all of last year – has helped refocus attention on the need to shore up Somalia's government.

"We need simultaneous action on security, development and humanitarian needs," Mr. Ould-Abdallah said. "This should not be an occasion for quarrels between those who are here to help."

The insurgency is led by Al Shabab, a militant group that claims allegiance to Al Qaeda and that the State Department has designated a terrorist organization. In Kune's southern town of Bardheere, the militants instituted Islamic law and levied high taxes on businesses. Kune was forced to close her tea stall because she couldn't afford to pay.

"Al Shabab is the superpower in that region," she said.

However, the Islamists' hard-line ways have sparked a backlash among Somalis, the vast majority of whom favor a moderate form of Sunni Islam. Last month in Bardheere, the Islamists clashed with a secular, pro-government militia called Ahlu Sunna Waljamaa, which has formed in recent months to battle Al Shabab.

After several days of gunbattles, Kune grabbed her son and jumped on a minibus that was heading to Kenya. They sneaked across a border that Kenyan authorities have closed for security reasons, but it's so long and unregulated that bus drivers routinely cross it at night, charging about $90 for the passage.

Human rights groups have sharply criticized Kenya for closing the border and for sending captured refugees back to Somalia, in violation of international laws against deporting asylum seekers back to their countries of origin. In a recent report, Human Rights Watch said that Kenyan authorities had deported possibly thousands of Somali refugees, "thereby violating the most fundamental part of refugee law."

Still, some 9,000 new refugees were registered in January alone, the largest monthly tally in more than a year.

Besides the constant threat of violence, a long-running drought in Somalia has decimated the sheep and goat herds that many families rely on for their livelihoods. Aid agencies estimate that more than 3 million people – half the country – need emergency assistance and that 200,000 children are severely malnourished.

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