The Ugandan government has warned a Somali rebel group that it would quickly regret any attack attempted within Ugandan territory. A senior leader of the al-Shabab militant group said late Thursday that the rebels would strike within Uganda and Burundi in retaliation for civilian deaths allegedly caused by a peacekeeping force manned with soldiers from those countries.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni told reporters Friday that al-Shabab would pay dearly for any attack attempted on Ugandan soil.
"If they try to attack Uganda, then they will pay, because we know how to attack those who attack us," he said. "And they are not in Heaven. If they were on the moon they would be at some liberty. But as long as they are on earth here, [for] a deliberate attack they will pay very heavily."
Al-Shabab commander Ali Mohamed Hussein said earlier that the group would expand its fight to the capital cities Kampala and Bujumbura.
The rebel leader accuses the peacekeepers under the African Union mission in Somalia, known as AMISOM, of being responsible for the shelling of a packed civilian area Thursday which reportedly killed more than 30 people.
The arch-conservative Islamic fighting group launched rockets at the Mogadishu airport yesterday as President Sheikh Shari Ahmed was set to fly to Uganda. The peacekeeping force, which has its base near the airport, responded by shelling the popular Bakara market where the rebels launched their attack, killing a number of civilians.
The Western-backed Mogadishu government Friday also joined in the condemnation of its apparent protectors. The deputy mayor of Mogadishu, Abdifatah Ibrahim Sabriye Shaweye, said both AMISOM and al-Shabab must quit harming unarmed Somalis.
AMISOM's spokesman denied responsibility for the deadly shelling, accusing al-Shabab of being behind the mortars in a tactic to turn public sentiment against the peacekeeping force.
Speaking to VOA, Foreign Affairs Minister Okello Oryem said that Uganda is "not intimidated" by the threats against his country. But he also added that the Ugandan authorities are actively acting upon the rebel's remarks to determine if they are credible.
"The government of Uganda is not taking the threats lightly. And we are taking all precaution measures in the country and outside the country to make sure that al-Shabab does not succeed in its mission of terrorism within Uganda or against our interests outside Uganda," said Oryem.
The minister said that Ugandan intelligence agents were busy trying to determine if al-Shabab could have infiltrated any of the communities living within its borders and was closely monitoring potential sites of a terrorist attack.
This is not the first time the African Union force is accused of being careless in its retaliations against the rebel groups, who often launch attacks from heavily populated areas. Mogadishu residents say that the foreign soldiers risk losing all popular support if they continue the indiscriminate shelling.
The AMISOM forces are composed of about 5,000 Ugandan and Burundian troops. Under its current mandate the peacekeeping soldiers are not allowed to engage in offensives against the rebel forces, but are limited to protecting a few key sites in the capital city, including the presidential palace and the airport.
The peacekeepers appear to be about all that is currently buffering President Sharif from the zealous rebels. His own government-aligned forces have steadily lost ground against the opposition fighters, who now control much of the capital as well as much of central and southern Somalia.
The recent threat issued against Uganda and Burundi is just the latest in a string of chest-thumping exercises by the Islamic militant group against its regional neighbors. Al-Shabab recently threatened Kenya for increasing its troop levels along the Kenyan-Somali border and for holding Somali training camps within Kenyan territory. Djibouti has also been warned of attacks if it contributes some of its own soldiers to the AMISOM force.