In Somalia, a faction of the militant Shabab group is denying Kenyan accusations that its members abducted two Italian Catholic nuns and a Kenyan driver nine days ago in a cross-border raid.  The group says Kenya risks triggering a war if it launches military action to rescue them inside Somalia.  VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu has the story from our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi.

The spokesman of the Shabab-led Islamic administration in the port city of Kismayo, Hassan Yacub, tells VOA that no Shabab fighters were involved in the kidnapping of the Italian nuns and the driver in the northeastern town of El Wak in Kenya on November 10.

Yacub says his group knows nothing about the abduction and who may have carried it out. 

Kenyan authorities launched a massive manhunt in El Wak, about 10 kilometers from the Somali border in the Mandera district, following reports that Somali gunmen armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades seized the nuns and drivers and drove back into Somalia in three stolen government vehicles.

Kenya blamed Shabab militants for the attack, which has been leading a violent insurgency in Somalia since early 2007 against Ethiopia and the transitional government it supports in Mogadishu.  The Shabab and other Islamist groups control most of south and central Somalia, prompting neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia to raise their security levels.

Kenya's Internal Security Minister George Saitoti told reporters Tuesday the government has given the Shabab an ultimatum to release the hostages immediately or face military action.  Saitoti said additional troops, security personnel, and equipment have been sent to the Mandera district in recent days to protect Kenya's border towns from being used by Somali militias to expand their operations.

"We have given an ultimatum to the al-Shabab militia to return back those Catholic nuns and the three vehicles, including the Kenyan, and we are very firm on that one," he said. "We cannot allow our own country to become the playground of foreign militia.  Therefore, we have beefed up security along that border because we also do that on the Somalia side, the al-Shabab has also brought in quite a number of militias."

Hassan Yacub condemned Kenyan government threats to send troops into Somalia.

He says if Kenyan forces enter Somali territory, they will start a war and Kenya will join the ranks of countries considered to be enemies of Islam.

The United States last week renewed a warning for its citizens traveling to Kenya, noting that there have been increased security concerns in the northeast of the country. 

Meanwhile, local reports say many residents in the Mandera districts are leaving amid fears that violence could soon erupt in the area.