MOGADISHU (Reuters) – 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.
Somali government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari 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,” he said.
“They will go under investigation. If there is a case against them, they will go to the courts. If not, they will be freed,” he added.
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,” said 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. Somalia is a failed state. How can they be given justice there?”
Ndubi said 34 were deported, while Dinari said 30.
Some residents said the Islamists had been taken to the Halane military base near Mogadishu airport, which was notorious for executions during the rule of former dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, toppled in 1991. Somali officials could not confirm that.
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 — Ethiopia’s arch-foe — 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.
Kenyan politician Farah Maalim, representing some of the Islamist suspects, protested against their deportation.
“I was denied access to them. I have been trying to get in touch with them in vain,” he told the Standard newspaper.
The transfer came after a fresh wave of violence in Somalia, where attackers suspected to be Islamist remnants have been striking government and Ethiopian military positions.
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, witnesses said.
Mortars also hit the hilltop presidential palace, Villa Somalia, on Friday night. An extra five Ethiopian tanks were deployed at the white-washed compound over the weekend.
Newly uniformed Somali police also patrolled the city.
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 famously defied the combined efforts of U.S. and U.N. peacekeepers in the early 1990s.
Diplomats fear a dangerous vacuum if peacekeepers do not arrive before Ethiopian troops return home.
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. But some of them are pledging to integrate with government forces.
One, Mohamed 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.
“I am happy to join the national army, and get a salary to support my poor family,” said Dheere militiaman Osman Muhumad, as he marched at the Jowhar ceremony.