Garissa — Al-Shabaab is misleading the public by branding the Kenyan hostages it is threatening to execute as prisoners of war, when in fact they are government employees who were kidnapped during a raid on a village in Wajir District, according to Kenyan Defence Minister Yusuf Haji.
"We are aware of two Kenyan government officials who were abducted by al-Shabaab in Wajir from Gerille on January 12, 2012," he told Sabahi. "They are not combatants. Those holding them should release them without conditions."
The al-Qaeda-allied group released a video titled "The Final Message" on its Twitter account on January 23rd, featuring the two government officials kidnapped in Gerille, 100 kilometres from Wajir town, and a photograph of four others. Al-Shabaab said it would execute the hostages if the Kenyan government failed to release Muslim prisoners facing terrorism charges.
The "Kenyan government has 3 weeks, starting midnight 24/01/2013 to respond to the demands of HSM [Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen] if the prisoners are to remain alive," it said, indicating that the ultimatum expires February 14th. "Following the expiration of this period, all the kuffar [non-Muslim] Kenyan prisoners who appeared in the recent video will be executed."
Three days after the post, Twitter suspended al-Shabaab's English-language account.
Haji identified the government officers who appeared in the video as Yesse Mule Edward and Fredrick Irungu Wainaina, but had no information about those who appeared in the photograph.
He said that during the raid, al-Shabaab also killed police sergeant Hassan Barre, officers Paul Karanja and Wilson Ng'are, police reservist Abdullahi Mohamed Abdi, elementary school teacher Julius Gitonga and expectant mother Nuria Hassan Mohamed.
Ali Gedi Maalim, Mohamed's brother-in-law, said the family was devastated by the killings. "She was to deliver in two months and had two other children," he said.
Al-Shabaab attacked just before 7 pm as villagers were conducting evening prayers, Maalim told Sabahi, adding that gunmen ransacked the village as residents fled to the bushes.
"It took about four hours before reinforcements arrived from Wajir Bor and Khorof Harar police posts, about 30 kilometres away, because the militants first disabled the police communication to allow themselves time to commit the atrocities," he said.
Haji said the government has been in contact with the families of the hostages to offer moral support and expressed optimism that they will be released. "At this moment, I will not dwell much on what the government is doing, but there is hope," he said. "Al-Shabaab should stop using civilians as blackmail for their demands."
Somalia's ambassador to Kenya Mohammed Ali Nur said this week that the threats show al-Shabaab's diminishing influence and he expects all of Somalia to be liberated from the militant group within a few months.
"We condemn threats issued by al-Shabaab to Kenya," Nur said. "We want the hostages released unconditionally. These are the last kicks of al-Shabaab."
Al-Shabaab demands unreasonable
In addition to demanding the release of suspects held in Kenya, al-Shabaab also demands that the government "secure the release of Muslims extradited to Uganda for terrorism charges", apparently referring to those jailed or on trial for al-Shabaab's July 2010 twin bombings that killed at least 74 people in Kampala.
"In Kenya, there is rule of law and a reformed judiciary system," Haji said, indicating that it was unreasonable for al-Shabaab to demand the release of suspects in custody. "Anyone being held for any crimes will be accorded justice. If the courts find them innocent, they will be released."
Samson Omusula, a Nairobi-based security consultant, said the demand to secure the release of terror suspects in Ugandan custody is the most difficult one to meet. "Uganda is an independent state that will not like to be drawn into the Kenyan hostage affair," he said.
Al-Shabaab might have felt emboldened by the failed French rescue mission on January 12th, which compelled them to release the video of the Kenyan hostages as a pre-emptive move to dissuade Kenyan forces from attempting a similar rescue mission, he said.
"The idea of a rescue operation is out of question now because it will endanger the lives of the hostages," he told Sabahi, adding that the government should employ community elders and religious leaders to negotiate for their release.