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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Shabaab and Hizbul Islam Aim at Kenya

MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Somalia's hardline al Shabaab rebels have prepared two suicide bombers disguised as military and police officers who are planning to strike Mogadishu's seaport and airport, the Somali police said on Monday.

A suicide bomber disguised as a woman in a veil blew up a medical graduation ceremony in the capital on Thursday and killed at least 22 people, including three government ministers, several doctors, students and their relatives.

Western security agencies say the failed Horn of Africa state is a safe haven for militants including foreign jihadists who use it to plot attacks across the region and beyond.

"Our intelligence reports say al Shabaab has prepared two suicide bombers in high-ranking police and military uniforms. They are going to target the airport and seaport," police spokesman Abdullahi Hassan Barise told reporters in Mogadishu.

"We have alerted all our forces. They should not be deceived by these al Shabaab suicide bombers."

The United States accuses the insurgent group of being al Qaeda's proxy in the impoverished, drought-ravaged country.

Somalia has lacked a functioning central government since 1991, and the Western-backed administration of President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed controls just a few strategic sites in the capital, including the heavily guarded seaport and international airport.

Fighting has killed at least 19,000 Somali civilians since the start of 2007 and driven 1.5 million from their homes, triggering one of the world's worst humanitarian disasters.

At sea, Somali pirates gangs have made tens of millions of dollars in ransoms.

On Sunday, Ahmed's government fired the head of the country's police force and its military chief in an effort to bolster security following Thursday's bombing.

Neighboring Kenya has arrested more than 300 people in recent days in Eastleigh, a Nairobi suburb that is predominantly populated by the Somali ethnic community, residents said.

"They are categorizing them as al Shabaab members," local councilor Abdifatah Ali told Reuters. "They are searching houses, hotels and businesses without court permission, and this is clearly a violation of our national laws."

Kenyan police could not immediately be reached for comment.

Kenyan security forces are on high alert along their frontier with Somalia after al Shabaab gunmen seized several small towns on the Somali side of the border in recent weeks.

On Monday, nine suspected members of another Somali rebel group, Hizbul Islam, appeared in court in Mombasa charged with illegal firearms possession after they arrested on Thursday with 20 AK-47 rifles close to the A-list resort island of Lamu.

The men were also charged with being in Kenya illegally. A magistrate remanded them to prison until a hearing on January 8.

(Additional reporting by Abdiaziz Hassan in Nairobi and Celestine Achieng in Mombasa; Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Michael Roddy)

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Shimron Issachar

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