By Bosire Boniface in Garissa
Security authorities in Garissa County say they are concerned that the conflict between the Ethiopian government and the outlawed Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) is spilling over into Kenya with fatal consequences.
ONLF is a rebel group that has been fighting with the Ethiopian government since 1984 for independence of the Ogaden region, a territory contested with Somalia during the Ogaden War in 1977-78 and inhabited by mostly ethnic Somalis.
Garissa County Director of Criminal Investigation Department Musa Yego said local authorities are concerned that the conflict may have spilled over into Kenya following a string of assassinations in Garissa of Ethiopian nationals suspected to be ONLF members.
On June 1st, Muslim cleric Sheikh Abdirashid Mohamed "Jelani" was shot dead after leaving Khalifa Mosque in Garissa town.
Then on June 17th, gunmen shot and seriously injured two men identified as Abdirashid Geel Qaad and Deek Mohammed Ahmed, who was Jelani's brother.
Ten days later on June 27th, gunmen shot Abdirashid Ali Bashir, 36, around Guled area in Garissa town.
The killings continued with Khathar Ismail, 28, shot dead at a cafeteria in Garissa town on July 1st, followed by the assassination on July 9th of his cousin Mohammed Hassan Abdi, a 48-year-old shopkeeper along Guled Road.
Yego said police have arrested five suspects, including three Ethiopians, in connection with the killings. The victims, he said, were all Ethiopian nationals with refugee status who had been in Kenya for several years.
"We have no doubt that they are part of a hit squad that has been responsible for some of the killings in Garissa," he told Sabahi, describing the arrests as a major breakthrough. "They have been killing under the cover of thenumerous al-Shabaab attacks. We hope to make more arrests and end the senseless killings."
Yego said they have reports that the assassins are allegedly Ethiopian government mercenaries and that the slain nationals were associated with ONLF.
"From our investigations we have established that [the victims] have links with the ONLF but we have not established the positions they held in the group," he told Sabahi.
He named the Ethiopian suspects awaiting trial as Abdirahaman Mohammed Hajir, Khalif Hassan and Abdirahman Abdi. The Kenyan suspects are Hussein Osman Abdi, a taxi driver accused of transporting the killers to their targets, and Abdishakur Mohamed Hassan, a landlord who allegedly provided them housing.
An analysis of the firearm recovered from Hajir has so far established that it was directly connected to five recent killings, including that of Jelani, Yego said.
Garissa County Commissioner Rashid Khator said he hopes that the arrest and prosecution of the suspects will bring some closure to residents.
"We do not want to be entangled in what is going on in Ethiopia, but we will definitely ensure that the conflict in other countries does not spill into Kenya," he told Sabahi. "Those fighting on Kenyan soil will be dealt with in accordance with Kenyan laws."
Taking advantage of prevailing insecurity
According to Ahmed Farah Mohamud, chairman of the Ogaden Refugee Council in Kenya, his organisation has provided numerous official reports to the Kenyan authorities concerning the killings.
"We have even provided names of the people we suspect to be assassins. But it is not until now that action has been taken and the suspects apprehended," he told Sabahi.
The killing of suspected ONLF members in Kenya has been ongoing since 2011, with a brief break in 2013, Mohamud said. "The killings in 2011 mostly occurred in Dadaab refugee camps while the 2012 killings occurred in Nairobi," he said. "This year the killings have mainly been executed in Garissa town."
"We feel that Ethiopian forces are taking advantage of the prevailing al-Shabaab attacks in Kenya to perform similar attacks against Ogaden political refugees in Kenya just as it happened in 2011 and 2012," he said, adding that the goal of the assassinations is to silence alleged dissent.
Ethiopia's Ambassador to Kenya Shamsudiin Ahmed said he was liaising with Kenyan authorities in the investigations to "get to the bottom of the serious matter".
"I am not aware of any Ethiopian mercenaries in Kenya," he told Sabahi. "Nevertheless, we are following up to establish the real identities and motives of the alleged killers."
Garissa County Women Representative Shukran Hussein Gure said Kenya's security apparatus should be relentless in pursuing the perpetrators of violence in the county.
"If those we host in the country have their own issues they should settle them in their country and not here," she said.
Gure praised the public for their collaboration in nabbing Hajir after he shot his victim.
"In the past residents have complained that suspects are mysteriously released after an arrest. We hope that the suspected criminals being handed to the police do not find their way out because it will be discouraging and endanger the residents who give out information to the security officers," Gure told Sabahi.