A Somali general says 1,500 young men have been recruited from Kenya on his government's behalf and are receiving military training in Kenya. The statement contradicts earlier denials by both governments that such recruitment is taking place. A leading human rights group says the Kenyan government is not only aware of the recruitment drive, but it is facilitating it.
The commander of Somali military forces, General Yusuf Dhumal, told reporters in Mogadishu late Thursday that Somalia and Kenya are cooperating in efforts to recruit potential soldiers for the Somali government from Kenya's Northeastern region.
The general says that 1,500 Kenyan men have been recruited and are being trained at camps in Kenya to fight Islamist rebels in Somalia. He says the recruiting effort is part of the Somali government's plan to build a strong army that can defend the country.
Somalia's al-Qaida-linked militant group, al-Shabab, has also sought to recruit fighters in the same area in recent months. Al-Shabab is leading an insurgency to overthrow the U.N.-backed-but-weak government in Mogadishu.
The timing of Dhumal's statement has raised questions because it follows on the heels of heated denials by Somali President Sharif Sheik Ahmed and top Kenyan officials. The recruitment drive in the mostly ethnic Somali region of Kenya has been widely condemned by local residents, Kenyan Muslim groups, and international human rights organizations.
In a report released on Friday, New York-based Human Rights Watch said the group discovered that recruiters are not only enlisting ethnic Somalis in Kenya, but they are also targeting Somali refugees in three camps in northeastern Dadaab that are home to nearly 300,000 people and is the largest concentration of refugees in the world.
Human Rights Watch researcher Letta Tayler tells VOA that recruiters are using deceptive practices and false promises to lure local men and refugees into signing up for military service in Somalia. She says some recruiters are also urging boys under 18 to lie about their ages.
"They were told they would be paid an exorbitant amount of money," said Tayler. "They were told, in some cases, that they would be fighting for, or with, the backing of the United Nations, the United States, or the European Community. However, once they were loaded onto trucks, dropped into the desert and then picked up again to head south to a training camp outside of Mombasa, the story started to change."
Human Rights Watch says officials from the United Nations, the United States, and the European Commission have all denied involvement. But Tayler says her group believes the recruitment drive in Dadaab and elsewhere in the Northeastern region is being facilitated by Kenya, a country that is being increasingly threatened by the rising power of Islamist extremists in neighboring Somalia.
"The boys and men we spoke to, some of the drivers and recruiters, said that they were loaded onto trucks belonging to the Kenyan military or to the Kenyan National Youth Service and they were taken from there to a training camp called Manyani," she said. "When you add this up, the government's denials of recruitment are implausible."
Manyani, near the southern port city of Mombasa, is a training center used to provide paramilitary training to wildlife rangers, as well as some Kenyan security forces. Somali General Dhumal also mentioned Manyani as one of the two camps where recruits are being trained, but he said the camps were located in the Northeastern province of Kenya.
Somali media is also reporting that hundreds of Somali prisoners, who had been in jails in Libya for illegally entering the country, had been freed, possibly to be trained as soldiers for the Somali government. The report could not be independently verified.