Kenyan forces fighting militants in Somalia are taking cuts from charcoal and sugar smuggling, earning themselves about $50 million a year and boosting an illegal trade that helps fund the Islamists, a rights group said on Thursday.
The army dismissed the report by Kenya's Journalists for Justice [PDF]. A Kenyan government spokesman called it "absolute garbage."
The U.N. Security Council banned charcoal exports from Somalia in 2012 to cut a stream of financing for the al-Qaeda-linked group al Shabaab. But U.N. and other experts have said the trade continued after that through the southern Somali port Kismayu, where Kenyan forces have a base.
Sugar is also imported through Kismayu and smuggled across the border into Kenya, where it is sold without paying the high tariffs that Kenya imposes to protect its sugar industry.
"Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) are involved in illicit export of charcoal and sugar from Kismayu port levying a tax of $2 per bag of charcoal, leaving the port and $2 per bag of sugar unloaded," Journalists for Justice said in statement.
Kenyan forces deployed in neighboring Somalia in 2011 to try to halt attacks in their country. Shortly after moving in, they joined a force of African Union troops which have in the past year or so driven al Shabaab out of many of its strongholds.
Al Shabaab, which ruled much of Somalia until 2011, still controls tracts of countryside and regularly launches attacks in the Somali capital Mogadishu. It has also launched raids in Kenya, killing hundreds of people in the past two years.
The rights groups said Al Shabaab and Somalia's regional Jubaland authorities benefitted from the illegal trade, with al Shabaab levying a $1,050 tax on the estimated 230 trucks a week leaving Kismayu for Kenya.
It valued the business at $200 million to $400 million a year, putting the KDF tax take at about $50 million.
The group said its research included interviews with more than 50 people with "intimate knowledge" of KDF activities. It said the business had the "protection and cooperation of senior political and military figures."
A government spokesman called the report "absolute garbage" and said it undermined Kenya's effort to stabilize Somalia, a nation ravaged by more than two decades of war and chaos. "What we are seeing is intellectual dishonesty masquerading as research," the spokesman said of the report.
KDF Spokesman Colonel David Obonyo also dismissed the report, saying: "It is not correct and it is not factual."