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On a dusty road toward Kenya’s border with Somalia, dozens of dugouts prepared by Ethiopian soldiers are testament to an ongoing war against terror.
Dugouts on the Kenyan side provided shelter to the soldiers last month as they launched an onslaught against al-Shabaab, the al Qaeda-linked group that controls large swathes of Somalia.
Further up the road, an Ethiopian military truck, laden with soldiers, lumbers by toward the Somali town of Bulla Hawa.
The onslaught dislodged the militia from the town, but the Ethiopians are keeping watch along the border, backed by hundreds of Transitional Federal Government soldiers.
Children at the nearby Border Point One Primary School, which was closed in the wake of the fierce fighting, have become accustomed to scenes of deadly military hardware, gunshots and soldiers.
They are back in school now, but a teacher says many are emotionally disturbed and can hardly concentrate in class.
The fighting broke out without warning on a school day, forcing them to flee. A Kenyan woman, 70, was shot dead in the crossfire just outside the school.
"For two weeks, bullets were flying all over," says a teacher, asking not to be named. "The site of armoured cars, tanks and soldiers has really disturbed them."
However, even as Government officials deny foreign soldiers are operating on Kenyan soil, security sources and residents say Kenya has become a playground for foreign soldiers, Somali militia and spies.
The presence of soldiers is fueling fears fighting could break out again, especially if al-Shabaab attempts to wrestle the town from the hands of the TFG. The attacks launched from the heavily populated Bula Geneva neighbourhood in Mandera caused massive destruction as houses were shelled and burned to ashes.
Hundreds of people fled the area. Many are yet to go back to their homes as they fear the war is not yet over. Security sources said al-Shabaab enjoys support from some residents, who operate as its spies from Mandera town and Nairobi.
One local clan, which is spread across Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, was said to be especially sympathetic to the terror group.
This makes it more difficult to root out al-Shabaab, as residents hardly co-operate with security officers. One security source told The Standard the situation is so bad because some Kenyans have joined the top ranks of the terror group.
He said a deputy commander of al-Shabaab, which reigned over Bulla Hawa and surrounding areas with an iron fist, is a Kenyan. Under siege from the government force, he fled into Somalia together with his band of fighters.
"It’s true. At one point, their head in Bulla Hawa was a Kenyan," Mandera East DC Benson Leparmarijo confirmed, speaking in his office. "We have been trying to gather information on the issue."
He believed many of the Kenyan youth had been indoctrinated through religious teachings, or were escaping poverty with a promise of good fortunes if they serve with the militia. But the DC denied foreign soldiers have operated on Kenyan soil.
"Which soldiers? Did you see them," he posed. The Standard crew however, did see Ethiopian soldiers, who have been given access to Somalia through Kenya. It was understood that although Kenya does not want to get involved in the Somali crisis militarily, the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development has requested help on behalf of the Ethiopians.
Kenya, as a neighbour, also agreed to train Somali policemen to assist the TFG restore order to the country that has had no government for over 20 years.
An investigation by two parliamentary committees – one on Defence and Foreign Affairs and the other on Internal Security – found scores of the young men trained were indeed Kenyans. Ethiopia, which has however taken a more aggressive role in Somalia as opposed to Kenya, also trained another batch of policemen.
Dozens of Kenyans are now believed to have been deployed into Somalia with the TFG, and may now be fighting other Kenyans in al-Shabaab.
However, the Government came under criticism over the manner in which it is handling the crisis. Officers spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.
On the attacks launched from Mandera, police officers said only the National Security Intelligence Service and the military were aware of the offensive launched from the Kenyan soil. Other arms of Government, such as the Administration Police who patrol the borders, were kept in the dark. Proper co-ordination would have ensured there were no civilian casualties if they were warned to evacuate in good time.
The Standard learnt policemen at the Mandera border were caught unawares.
"It was quite scary," said an officer. "People should have been warned to leave. If something like that happens again, there could be deaths in a more widespread scale." A retaliatory attack by al-Shabaab, which attacked Kenya two times last week, has not been ruled out.
Kenyan intelligence officers are working around the clock as they try to gather information on the terror operatives, especially since al-Shabaab issued threats to attack Kenya.
Anti-terror police, together with General Service Unit officers and Administration Police, have been deployed along the border.