MOGADISHU (Reuters) â€” Kenya has sent about 30 prisoners shackled hand-and-foot on a plane to Somalia after arresting them near the border on suspicion of belonging to an ousted Islamist movement, their representatives said on Sunday.
The deportees, who a lawyer said included one Canadian and three Eritreans, were among scores of suspected Islamist fighters and supporters rounded up by Kenyan forces after a war that ended the movement’s six-month rule of south Somalia.
The Somali government said they included some senior officials of the former Somalia Islamic Courts Council (SICC).
“We thank the Kenyan government and other Horn of Africa nations for their outstanding cooperation dealing with terrorism issues,” Abdirahman Dinari said. “If there is a case against them, they will go to the courts. If not, they will be freed.” The deportees arrived in Mogadishu late on Saturday and were put in custody of Ethiopian soldiers, government sources said.
“They were shackled with chains on their feet and handcuffs on their hands behind their backs,” Kenyan lawyer Harun Ndubi told Reuters. “Ethiopia regards them as an enemy, so I really fear they could face the same fate as Saddam Hussein now.” Ndubi said 34 were deported, while Dinari said 30.
Ndubi said the transferred prisoners included a Canadian citizen, Bashir Ahmed Makhtat, who had told him he ran a second-hand clothes business in the region and was trying to cross the border overland when the war blocked other routes.
Three other prisoners were from Eritrea â€” Ethiopia’s arch-foe â€” and had also identified themselves as businessmen, involved in the charcoal trade, he said.
The Somali Islamists’ forces were boosted by foreign Muslim fighters, particularly in the run-up to the open warfare in late December and early January. And while Ethiopia openly backed the government against the Islamists, Eritrea was accused of sending arms and soldiers to help the religious movement.
Asmara denied that.
A freelance Somali journalist said on Sunday he had seen US troops on the ground in south Somalia working with Ethiopian forces hunting fugitive Islamists.
“They were Americans, I have no doubt,” he said, referring to helicopters he saw overhead and men he bumped into with Ethiopian soldiers at a military base.
Rumours have swirled for days that US personnel were inside Somalia since a January 8 air strike aimed at Al Qaeda suspects believed to be among the Islamists. It was Washington’s first overt military engagement in Somalia since 1994.
But there has been no official confirmation of a US ground presence, which would be sure to inflame political passions in Somalia and the Horn of Africa region where Muslims complain of heightened discrimination in the name of the “war on terror.” The Somali journalist said that while on a filming trip to the Somalia-Kenya border area in recent days, he saw about 30 white men in military dress, some showing US Marine insignia, with Ethiopian counterparts at the village of Kuldio.
The journalist said his vehicle was tracked from the air for hours by two helicopters each carrying three white crew members.
“We were terrified, because they obviously suspected we were Islamists,” he told Reuters in Nairobi by telephone.
There was no immediate US reaction.
In Mogadishu, attackers suspected to be Islamist remnants have been hitting government and Ethiopian military positions in a string of guerrilla-style attacks.
A gunman fired an assault rifle at an Ethiopian convoy in a crowded animal market in Mogadishu on Saturday, triggering a shootout that killed at least four civilians. And mortars hit the hilltop presidential palace, Villa Somalia, on Friday.
With Islamist sources vowing a long guerrilla war against the Somali government and its allied Ethiopian forces, the African Union (AU) has approved a nearly 8,000-strong peacekeeping force for the chaotic Horn of Africa nation.
But many doubt the AU’s capacity to muster such a force, let alone tame Somalia, which defied the combined efforts of US and UN peacekeepers in the early 1990s. Diplomats fear a vacuum if peacekeepers do not arrive before Ethiopia exits.
Another threat to the Somali government is the return of warlords, whom the Islamists drove out last year but are now returning to Mogadishu and elsewhere. Some of them, however, are pledging to integrate with government forces.
One, Mohammad Dheere, put 221 militiamen, 23 battle-wagons, and piles of arms, in the service of the government army at a weekend ceremony in Jowhar, north of Mogadishu.