GARISSA, Kenya (Reuters) â€” Kenyan soldiers and helicopters beefed-up defences at the Somali border on Wednesday after Ethiopian warplanes and ground forces attacked fleeing Islamists on the other side of the frontier.
The Islamists, which left their last stronghold on Monday after two weeks of war with Somali government troops backed by Ethiopian armour, have pledged to fight on after melting into the hills between the Indian Ocean port of Kismayu and Kenya.
The Somali interim government is seeking to install itself in the capital, breaking out from the provincial outpost of Baidoa, which had been threatened when the Islamists took over much of southern Somalia in June.
Residents of Liboi, a Kenyan border post, said they saw Ethiopian fighter jets and helicopter gunships flying over the Somali town of Doble, 25 km away, late on Tuesday.
They then heard shooting which tailed off after midnight.
“When we heard the gunshots we panicked, although we knew it could be these groups fighting across the border,” said Liboi businessman Abdi Rage.
“The security forces are many here and it is like we are also involved in this fight. Vehicles are moving up and down the border. This is causing tension but at least we feel secure.” Kenyan reinforcements, driving in trucks and armoured vehicles and flying in helicopters, were put on high alert.
“We were told [the Islamists] were fleeing towards this side,” local district commissioner Joseph Imbwaga told Reuters.
Nairobi sealed the border after the Somali government urged it to stop leaders of the Somalia Islamic Courts Council (SICC) or foreign jihadist supporters escaping.
“No armed individual or group can enter our country or be allowed to compromise its security,” local Kenyan police commander Johnstone Limo told Reuters by telephone. “We shall stop them, arrest them and, if necessary, fight them.” Eight suspected combatants were being questioned after they were arrested trying to enter Kenya near Liboi on Sunday.
An ambush that killed at least one Ethiopian soldier in south Somalia on Tuesday showed that fighting may go on, despite the lightning military offensive by Ethiopian tanks, troops and jets that routed the Islamists from Mogadishu then Kismayu.
European foreign ministers and senior diplomats met in Brussels to push for peace talks.
“We are keen to see an inclusive political process in Somalia … without that it will be difficult to achieve security,” Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt told Reuters.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi says his forces will stay in Somalia for a few more weeks to help the government pacify the Horn of Africa nation. Somali Prime Minister Ali Mohammad Gedi said they may stay months.
Both have called for international peacekeepers to be sent without delay. Uganda has provisionally offered a battalion, and President Yoweri Museveni was due to hold talks on Somalia with his counterpart in Addis Ababa on Thursday.
Kampala has said it will only deploy when its mission and exit strategy are clearly defined. Nigeria may also help.
The Islamists vowed to “rise from the ashes”, and a day after Ethiopian armour rolled into the southern town of Jilib a resident said a Somali gunman killed two Ethiopian troops.
Analysts say the Islamists, joined by some foreign fighters, may launch an Iraqi-style insurgency against a government they see as propped up by Ethiopia, a hated and Christian-led power.
Prime Minister Gedi says the government has taken prisoner Arab fighters, Ethiopian rebels and troops sent by Ethiopia’s arch-foe Eritrea on the battlefield.
US warships were patrolling off Somalia to stop SICC leaders or foreign supporters escaping, diplomats said.
Gedi has demanded armed groups and residents of Mogadishu hand in their thousands of firearms by Thursday in a drive to disarm one of the world’s most dangerous cities.
His government’s legitimacy hangs on returning to Mogadishu and restoring central rule for the first time since the 1991 overthrow of a dictator. But few guns were handed in.