NAIROBI: The bodies of Kenyan soldiers killed when Al-Qaeda-linked militants overran their base in Somalia were flown home late Monday draped in the national flag as a rescue operation was underway for survivors.
Defence Minister Raychelle Omamo called the dead “VIPs, the fallen heroes” as four coffins arrived by plane in the capital Nairobi. They were carried by an honour guard of their comrades.
The army has set up helplines for the families of those killed, although it has yet to name them and no official toll has been released.
“This is a very sombre moment for the Kenya Defence Forces — and I think for the country at large,” Omamo said, calling for “patience” as efforts to rescue remaining troops continued.
“Search, rescue and recovery operations are ongoing, and consequently we except to receive more of our soldiers in the coming days,” she said, without giving further details.
The African Union base in southwest Somalia was attacked by Shebab fighters early on Friday morning, the latest incident of an AU Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) base being overrun by the militants.
More than a dozen survivors, some wounded, were flown back on Sunday and Monday.
Kenya has so far declined to say how many of its soldiers were killed, wounded or missing but on Sunday a Shebab statement said that more than 100 Kenyan soldiers were killed and others captured.
– ‘Barbaric attack’ –
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said in a statement that the Shebab would “have no time to breathe” and vowed revenge, although it remains unclear if ground forces have reached the base.
The Shehab have also released two recordings they say are of captured Kenyan troops which were broadcast on their Radio Andalus station, although their veracity could not be confirmed.
Jihadist websites in Somalia claimed that 12 Kenyan soldiers were captured.
The militants frequently exaggerate the number of troops they kill, while AMISOM and the countries that contribute troops to the force rarely give reliable tolls.
Somali Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Sharmarke on Monday condemned the Shebab’s “barbaric attack” as he offered his “condolences to the families of the gallant soldiers who lost their lives”.
Although no toll has been released, former prime minister and Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga said it was the worst such attack for the east African nation’s army.
“The attack on and murder of Kenya soldiers… constitutes the worst such act against our troops in our history as a nation,” Odinga said in a statement, calling for two days of national mourning.
“This attack has sparked off understandable panic, anger and uncertainty among our citizens who are seeking to better understand how this happened, the number of victims, the survivors and their whereabouts and how we ensure this does not happen again,” he said.
The European Union, a key donor to the AMISOM mission, condemned the attack, calling it “another attempt to undermine a political process towards a stable and secure Somalia.”