AP IMPACT: Kenyans recruited to fight in Somalia

DADAAB, Kenya – The recruits assembled by moonlight at a watering hole. Hundreds of boys and young Kenyan men were herded onto trucks, which were covered with heavy canvas, and driven through the night.

It was so hot inside they could hardly breathe. One recruit, Salad Dahir, said they banged the sides of the truck for water but got none. Some had to urinate where they stood.

Their destination: a secluded training camp deep in the Kenyan bush.

Thousands of people, including children, are being secretly recruited and trained inside Kenya to battle Islamic insurgents in neighboring Somalia, according to deserters, local officials, families of recruits and diplomats. Most recruits are Somalis living in crowded refugee camps and Kenyan nationals who are ethnic Somalis living nearby.

Spokesmen from the Kenyan government, police and military, as well as the Somali chief of military staff, have denied that the government is recruiting fighters within Kenya. But interviews showed that recruiting has been taking place for months and that different government agencies and military resources — including vehicles with government license plates — have been involved.

A U.N. official says there have been rumors but no hard evidence of recruitment in refugee camps, which would violate the rights of the refugees.

Eight diplomats, citing internal reports and other sources, told The Associated Press that the recruits are being trained for a planned offensive on behalf of Somalia's weak, U.N.-backed government to wrest control of parts of southern Somalia from the insurgents. The diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity to prevent damaging relations with Kenya over the sensitive subject. Two of the diplomats said the offensive is planned for the end of Somalia's rainy season around the end of the year.

Kenya has long feared that the conflict in Somalia, which has been bloodied by civil war since warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, will spill across the border into its own neglected northeastern region. The area is home to hundreds of thousands of ethnically Somali Kenyans.

Thousands of would-be fighters, some as young as 11, have been lured into the militia by promises of up to $600 a month, but many fled after they were not paid, were beaten or went hungry, more than a dozen of the deserters told the AP. Many recruits remain in the ranks and see the secret militia as their only way out of overcrowded refugee camps and the dusty, poor towns around them.

Chris Albin-Lackey, a researcher at Human Rights Watch who has interviewed recruits and their families, said: "Refugees are supposed to find safety in the camps, not a government that is trying to trick their sons into going back to fight in Somalia."

Albin-Lackey noted the recruitment of children violates the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Kenya is a signatory.

Kenya is eager to counter the influence of insurgents in Somalia who preach the spread of a pan-Islamic state into Kenya and Ethiopia, where many Somalis live due to borders drawn by former colonial powers. Somalia's al-Shabab insurgents — some of whom have ties to al-Qaida — already cross into northern Kenya.

About two months ago, recruiters started openly operating in Kenyan towns and in nearby huts and tents of the refugee camps, according to more than 20 interviews with recruits, their families and religious, municipal and civil society leaders. Some recruiters even worked from a hotel fronting a heavily fortified U.N. compound in the northern town of Dadaab, home to three overcrowded camps of about 275,000 refugees, most from Somalia.

Baijo Mohamed, chairman of a youth group in Dadaab's Ifo camp, said he had been approached by two Somali generals to help recruit fighters but refused because he did not want to see his friends die in a war they are not responsible for.

More than a dozen deserters said they were promised positions in the Kenyan or Somali armies or jobs with U.N. security by men acting as recruiters. Some said they were told they would patrol the Kenya-Somalia border. But upon arrival at the training camp, they were told they were going to Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, or Kismayo, a key southern city under Islamist control.

Some recruits said they would never have joined if they had known they were supposed to be fighting in Somalia, a sun-scorched nation that has not seen peace in a generation.

Kenyan Defense Ministry spokesman Bogita Ongeri denied a secret militia is being formed or that the military was involved in any recruitment or training. Contradictory evidence was the result of propaganda by Somali Islamists, he said, adding that the only training taking place is Kenyan police training Somali police.

This version corrects spelling to 'Keynan' sted 'Kaynan' and to 'Albin-Lackey' sted 'Albin-Lacky.'