Nairobi — A combined operation of the Army and paramilitary police swooped on villages in Mt Elgon District at dawn as scared residents of all ages scampered for dear life.
In what is being billed as the biggest operation in the country since the Shifta wars of the 1960s, the no-nonsense officers attacked from the air and on the ground.
A resident, Mr Kiberenge arap Ndiwa, who fled from Chepsiro in the district said: "Ndege iko inamwaga moto kila mahali huko milimani (Helicopters are spitting fire everywhere in the hills)."
Whole villages and shopping centres had been turned into ghost areas.
At the same time, the Government imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew in the troubled Kitale and Mt Elgon regions.
Rift Valley PC, Mr Hassan Noor Hassan, speaking through the Provincial Information Officer, Mrs Mary Miano, said the 7pm-to-7am curfew would extend to Trans Nzoia West, Trans Nzoia East and Kwanza districts.
Army officers on guard at the banks of Lwakhakha River in Cheptais, Mt Elgon District, on Monday. The military launched an air and land offensive to hunt down Sabaot Land Defence Force fighters. Picture by Isac Wale
The military operation was launched from the southern end of Mt Elgon District, an area the Government says is the stronghold of the Sabaot Land Defence Force (SLDF), which has been accused of atrocities.
Most of the killings linked to the group have taken place in Kopsiro and Cheptais divisions, and in the upper parts of Saboti in neighbouring Trans Nzoia District.
The fighting, which has been going on for nearly two years, started when residents differed over the allocation of land in Chebyuk Settlement Scheme, with residents claiming they had been overlooked.
The Ndorobo claimed that the rival Soi clan had been given land hived off the forest, which was their home until they were evicted and moved to a reserve by the Government.
Western PC, Mr Abdul Mwasserah, was upbeat that the operation would deal a deathblow to the militia group.
"We are going to wipe them out and ensure that peace returns to Mt Elgon after over two years of mayhem," said the administrator.
Asked about the involvement of the military and the heavy hardware deployed, the PC said it was necessary because past operations had yielded nothing.
But local leaders criticised the operation.
A furious Mt Elgon MP, Mr Fred Kapondi, protested at the manner in which the campaign was being conducted.
He demanded that attacks on the civilian population stop and an explanation why military helicopters were being used to "bomb the banks of Cheptais and Lwakhakha rivers".
"They are targeting populated areas instead of rounding up the militia who operate from the forest," said Kapondi.
And former Assistant minister, Mr Samuel Moroto, accused the Government of frustrating the Sabaot community in the name of hunting for criminals.
"The Government action is not the way to solve an insecurity problem. Instead, it is subjecting innocent people to unnecessary suffering," lamented Moroto.
The two leaders said they feared security officers would abuse human rights, and demanded that the operation be halted.
The security forces have deployed cannon gunners, helicopter gunships and other military hardware ferried to the region in Kenya Army trucks.
They assembled at the Eldoret Airstrip on Sunday evening for a briefing before embarking on the exercise, whose duration is unknown.
The Chairman of the National Council of Churches of Kenya, Bishop Eliud Wabukala, asked security personnel to be professional during the operation.
"We will demand that they do not harass innocent children and women," he said.