Al-Shabab attacks airstrip used by U.S. and Kenyan militaries, killing three Americans

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NAIROBI — Al-Shabab militants launched a predawn attack Sunday on a shared U.S. and Kenyan military airstrip located on Kenya’s coast near the border with Somalia, officials said, adding that the assault was repulsed.

Residents and tourists in the Lamu region reported seeing a plume of smoke and hearing gunfire at 3:30 a.m. that continued into the midmorning hours. There were no reports that any civilians or Kenyan or U.S. personnel died in the attack.

The U.S. military trains Kenyan soldiers at a base attached to the airstrip, known as Camp Simba, and uses the airstrip for aerial missions against al-Shabab in Somalia. The U.S. Africa Command said in a statement that there had been an attack that it repelled, together with Kenyan forces.

Kenyan Defence Forces said the attack took place around 5:30 a.m.

“The attempted breach was successfully repulsed,” said spokesman Lt. Col. Paul Njuguna. “The airstrip is safe. Arising from the unsuccessful breach, a fire broke out affecting some of the fuel tanks located at the airstrip. The fire has been put under control and standard security procedures are now ongoing.”

Njuguna said the bodies of five attackers were found.

A Kenyan police report cited by the Associated Press also said that two airplanes, one Kenyan and one American, along with two U.S. helicopters and other vehicles, were destroyed in the attack. The U.S. military statement acknowledged that initial reports indicated some damage to infrastructure and equipment.

For its part, al-Shabab said it had inflicted “severe casualties” on both American and Kenyan forces and confirmed it had destroyed U.S. aircraft and vehicles.

U.S. and Kenyan forces did not report any casualties, and the AFRICOM statement called the al-Shabab report an exaggeration.

Al-Shabab, which is affiliated with al-Qaeda, has mounted a string of attacks in Kenya recently, including multiple ambushes on passenger buses traveling in the region close to the Somali border.

Last Saturday, the group bombed a busy intersection in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, killing at least 80 people. Almost a year ago, al-Shabab staged its most daring attack on Kenyan soil in half a decade when multiple gunmen stormed a luxury hotel and office complex in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, holding it in a 20-hour siege in which at least 21 civilians were killed.

Al-Shabab controls most of rural southern and central Somalia and regularly attacks Mogadishu. The group seeks to impose a strict version of Islamist law and to expel foreign troops from the country. In addition to about 500 U.S. personnel in Somalia, the African Union sponsors a coalition of about 20,000 troops, mostly from Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda.

The group gets most of its funding from an extensive protection racket that functions like a parallel taxation system throughout the country. It is paid tens of millions of dollars a year by farmers, business owners and others who are threatened with death if they don’t pay up.

The U.S. military has led a largely aerial campaign against al-Shabab for the better part of the past decade. In 2017, President Trump loosened the U.S. military’s rules of engagement in Somalia, allowing for greater offensive use of force. Since then, the U.S. military has ramped up drone strikes and carried out a record 63 strikes in 2019, in which it claims to have killed hundreds of al-Shabab fighters.

Rael Ombuor in Nairobi contributed to this report.

Source: Washington Post