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Kenya Deports Hundreds of Somali Refugees

Kenyan authorities are sending hundreds of Somali refugees who have crossed into Kenya back to volatile Somalia, a move the U.N. refugee agency says breaks international law. Meanwhile, there are reports of fighting near the Kenya-Somali border as Ethiopian and Somali government troops chase away the last of the Islamists. Cathy Majtenyi reports for VOA from Nairobi.

Aid workers say 4,000 Somalis are holed up in the Somali town of Dhobley, about 25 kilometers from the Kenyan border, wanting to cross over into Kenya to escape the volatility of Somalia.

Several-hundred refugee claimants were able to make it to a reception center managed by the U.N. refugee agency and the Kenya Red Cross Society in the Kenyan town of Liboi, only to be turned back. Police also barred the Kenya Red Cross from entering the reception center.

A spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Millicent Mutuli, tells VOA Kenyan police deported at least 364 Somali refugee claimants.

"There was a large presence of police and military in the area," she said. "They were said to be interrogating the asylum seekers. We have pretty good reports that trucks have been seen leaving the reception center and basically taking people back to Somalia. Two trucks had already left this morning and a third truck was being loaded."

Mutuli says her agency has been trying to contact Kenya's immigration and foreign affairs ministries for the past couple of days, and it intends to protest the deportations the agency says violate international refugee policy.

A police commander in the area, Johnstone Limo, confirms to VOA that the deportations took place.

"Yes, we do not want them. We do not want them to come to our country. We do not want them because we want them to solve their problem when they are in their country," said Limo.

Somalia's Minister of Foreign Affairs Esmael Mohamud Hurreh denies that Kenyan authorities are deporting Somali refugee claimants.

"They are not [deporting]. They are going to screen them, but not turning them back. They have to screen and make sure that there are no terrorists blending with these people [refugee claimants]," he said.

Hurreh added that what likely happened is that Islamists who tried to hide among the refugee claimants returned to Somalia once they found out they were going to be screened.

Reuters news agency reports gunfire could be heard late Tuesday and early Wednesday in Dhobley, near the Kenyan-Somali border, and witnesses said they saw Ethiopian warplanes flying over the border area.

Kenyan police commander Limo denies that there is fighting in the area, saying that all is calm and that the Somali refugee claimants should return to Somalia because, he says, there is no war there.

Ethiopian jets in pursuit of Islamist fighters Tuesday mistakenly bombed a Kenyan border post. Also Tuesday, Kenyan authorities arrested and detained at least eight people suspected of being Islamist fighters and financiers.

The Kenyan and Somali presidents also met to discuss the situation in Somalia and how best to collaborate on security issues.

The latest fighting between Ethiopian-backed government troops and the so-called Islamic Courts Union was sparked more than two weeks ago by the passing of an Islamist set deadline for Ethiopian troops to leave Somalia.

Earlier this year, the Islamic Courts Union seized control of the capital and other areas before reaching a truce with the government.