Kenya bans Somali flights
in major terror crackdown
By MBURU MWANGI - Daily Nation -Nairobi - Kenya
The government yesterday banned flights to Somalia and closed Kenyan airspace to planes from that country in a security operation aimed at preventing a possible terrorist attack.
At the same time, a major security operation by the Anti-terrorism Police Unit and the General Service Unit continued in Nairobi's Eastleigh area, home to thousands of Somali refugees.
The swoop started on Friday and continued throughout the night and most of yesterday. About 100 people, mostly young men, were taken in for questioning.
At the same time, the US embassy in Nairobi has been closed until possibly Wednesday in what US officials are describing as "new and concrete information concerning the continuing threat of terrorist activity in Kenya and East Africa".
The closure came as it was confirmed that US President George Bush would be visiting Africa next month, but would not come to Kenya, again because of "security concerns".
Mr Bush will start his six-day visit, his first to the continent, on July 7 and is expected to visit Senegal, South Africa, Botswana, Uganda and Nigeria, according to the White House.
Though the intended destinations were not announced before the original trip, which was postponed because of the war in Iraq, Kenya was among the countries likely to be visited. It has now been ruled out.
On the closure, the embassy said it was part "of an effort to review and adjust internal security procedures and to vary embassy hours in view of the ongoing security threat in Kenya".
Because of the threat, the embassy said, there has been an "authorised voluntary departure status" for American mission personnel and a warning to US citizens against travelling to Kenya. Opening hours will continue to be changed as a security measure, the embassy said, though efforts would be made to ensure all business, including visa and other consular matters, was attended to.
The US embassy closure comes at a time when European countries are relaxing their travel advisories on Kenya. France, Belgium and Germany have all withdrawn travel warnings.
At Wilson Airport all air traffic to Somalia was stopped and no aircraft from that country was to be allowed to overfly Kenya.
Traders and passengers to the war-torn Somalia were stranded in Nairobi and miraa (khat) worth millions of shillings lay at the airport.
Relief flights to Somalia were also grounded.
There was tight security at the airport, used exclusively for charter flights, and business was at a virtual standstill as most aircraft scheduled to fly to Somalia remained in hangars.
In the Eastleigh swoop, the the anti-terror unit backed by the GSU was in action in an operation that the security brass, including Police Commissioner Edwin Nyaseda, the head of the anti-terrorism unit, Mr Mathew Kabetu and the GSU Commandant Lawrence Mwadime, remained tight-lipped about.
The government would also not comment on the US embassy closure, promising to issue a statement today.
The decision to ban flights was communicated to traders at 6.30am after their cargo arrived from the Maua farms in Meru at 4 am.
At least 13 flights carrying miraa leave the airport every morning to various towns in Somalia where the mild drug is in popular demand. The flights ferry more than 500 bags of the twigs to Mogadishu, Kismayu, Galkaayo and Baladweyne towns.
There are also many daily relief flights to Somalia out of Wilson Airport.
A terse Government signal from the Civil Aviation Authority to all airports said: "No flights to/ from Somalia and overflights originating from Somalia are allowed to operate in Kenyan airspace."
Captain Hussein Mohammed, who is in charge of flights at Bluebird Aviation lamented that although the ban was effected at dawn, aviation companies were only issued with the signal, known in aviation jargon as notice to airmen (notamn) after 2 pm.
He said he himself was issued with the notamn by the acting director of air traffic control, a Mr Nyikul. The notice was issued under the instructions of Defence Permanent Secretary Sammy Kyungu, the Sunday Nation learned.
A miraa trader, Mr Rashid Warer complained: "What has miraa got to do with terrorism? This is all the work of America."
On the Eastleigh operation, Nairobi police provincial boss Joseph Kimenchu told the Sunday Nation by telephone that the swoop was aimed at smoking out robbers and illegal aliens but would not elaborate.
Last month, a circular by National Security Minister Dr Chris Murungaru instructed hotel and lodge owners in the area to ask for identification papers of all guests checking in.
Civic leader Kullow Ibrahim Haji urged the government not to harass area residents in the pretext of fighting terrorism.
"Our people should not be harassed for no reason. The police should not take advantage of this anti-terrorism issue to harass innocent people. They should also not act on false information to victimise innocent citizens."
Mr Ibrahim has been to many police stations, trying to make contact with those arrested.
They are reportedly being held at Embakasi, Kasarani and Pangani police stations, though it not known if or when they would be charged in court and with what offence.
Most of those being questioned are young men between the ages of 15 and 30. The operation was concentrated on the Third, Fourth, Twelfth Streets of Eastleigh's First Avenue.
The streets are home to many Ethiopian and Somali refugees.
On May 14, Dr Murungaru issued a statement that security forces had been placed on high alert after intelligence reports said Kenya and its neighbours were targeted by terrorists.
One of the suspected terrorists, he said, was Abdulla Mohamed alias Harun who was said to regularly visit Kenya and Mogadishu. His picture was released to the media to assist in the manhunt.