LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Kenya's government is considering sending thousands more troops into Somalia, this time to join African Union forces that are propping up a transitional government in Mogadishu. Kenya already has thousand troops in that lawless country, trying to pursue a terrorist group. The month-old incursion caught the U.S. and others off guard and it has raised alarm among aid groups. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Kenya's ambassador to the United Nations, Macharia Kamau, says the Americans weren't the only ones surprised by his country's actions.
AMBASSADOR MACHARIA KAMAU: We surprised ourselves. We have never in our history engaged in any kind of foreign adventure of a military sort. But what I think it is that matters did come to a head.
KELEMEN: Tens of thousands of Somalis had been pouring into Kenya, fleeing famine and instability at home. And the al-Shabab militia, which controls much of south-central Somalia, has carried out repeated terrorist attacks and kidnappings inside Kenya.
KAMAU: When you're dealing with a violent group of murderous individuals, you have to come to a point where you make a decision. Do you continue to allow the slow bleed to happen so that the country becomes completely anemic and unable to function, or do you after 25 years of living next to a failed state, make a decision that you can no longer afford tolerate the situation?
KELEMEN: Though critics see Kenya's military actions as misguided and uncoordinated, Kamau says Kenya is working with Somalia's transitional government to secure Kenya's borders and go after the al-Shabab militia. The ambassador came to Washington this past week to seek U.S. help.
KAMAU: We would love to have the United states engage, provide the logistics support, intelligence, maybe even in combat form. They don't need to put troops on the ground, no boots on the ground, we can do that. But we're also looking for countries, Ethiopia, Djibouti, to step up their game so that they are able to help us secure the peace in Somalia. This is about saving Somalia. It's not just about just the pursuit of Kenya's objectives.
KELEMEN: Pentagon officials say the U.S. is monitoring the Kenyan incursion but not providing assistance. The State Department is advising caution, according to Donald Yamamoto, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for Africa.
DONALD YAMAMOTO: You don't what the consequences are going to be. Look at the Ethiopian incursion into Somalia; look at our own personal history. It's fraught with a lot of problems and dangers. The Somalis just do not like foreigners in their area.
KELEMEN: Yamamoto says Kenya's motivations were understandable, but the U.S. has tried to keep focused on beefing up the African Union forces, supporting a transitional government and reaching out to major clans.
YAMAMOTO: The overall issue and solution to the Somalia problem is going to have to be a regional concerted approach, an international approach. But also ultimately the Somalis themselves have to resolve this.
KELEMEN: One British diplomat told NPR that countries ought to help Kenya come up with an exit strategy. There are fears that its incursion could make it harder for aid workers to reach famine victims. The Africa director of the UN's refugee agency, George Okoth-Obbo, points to one ominous sign. The flow of refugees into Kenya has fallen drastically, perhaps because Somalis are trapped by the fighting.
GEORGE OKOTH-OBBO: When the military operation started on the 16th of October, up to that period we were having on average something like 1,000 new arrivals every day from Somalia. Sometimes there were fewer sometimes a bit more. Since that time, we have not had any new arrivals; the numbers have gone down practically to zero.
KELEMEN: Okoth-Obbo says Kenyans are doing more to provide security at a massive refugee camp, but aid groups have had to scale back their work after a kidnapping there last month. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.