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Nairobi on high alert as US warns of Shabaab reprisals

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 Kenyan soldier stands on guard in Eastleigh estate as a military helicopter flies past. Security has been tightened around the capital in response to Al Shabaab’s threat of reprisal attacks.  Xinhua

Kenyan soldier stands on guard in Eastleigh estate as a military helicopter flies past. Security has been tightened around the capital in response to Al Shabaab’s threat of reprisal attacks. Xinhua 

By BD Reporter and Agencies

Posted  Sunday, October 23  2011 at  20:45

Kenyan authorities tightened security in the capital Nairobi as the US embassy issued its latest warning of an ‘imminent threat’ of reprisal attacks from Somalia’s militant group Al Shabaab.

The embassy said it had credible information of a looming “threat of terrorist attacks directed at prominent Kenyan facilities and areas where foreigners are known to congregate, such as malls and night clubs.”

The alert, issued late Saturday, said the Islamic militants were planning to attack Nairobi, East Africa’s commercial hub, with a large population of international civil servants and diplomats, in retaliation for the military offensive Kenya has launched against them in Somalia.

The warning came as Kenyan authorities intensified efforts to secure the capital and commercial hub that accounts for up to 55 per cent of the country’s $35 billion gross domestic product (GDP).

Undercover and uniformed police, who have thrown a security cordon around the city since the Kenyan forces moved into Somalia last week to take on the Shabaab, at the weekend got the backing of the military in the eastern suburb of Eastleigh.

Soldiers from the nearby Moi Airbase supervised the demolition of informal settlements around the military installation that is situated at the heart of the densely populated Eastlands district of Nairobi in a swift operation that betrayed how serious the government is taking the Shabaab threats.

The tightening of security around Nairobi came a day after Kenya’s Internal Security minister described the al Shabaab as a large animal with its tail in Somalia and its head in Nairobi’s Eastleigh estate – a suburb of Nairobi that is mainly inhabited by people of Somali origin.

Informal settlements around other key installations such as the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) were also demolished and extra security personnel deployed around major facilities in the capital.

Besides being Kenya’s commercial and industrial hub, Nairobi is also the epicentre of the country’s Sh73 billion tourism industry, the third largest foreign exchange earner.

JKIA is a key entry point for the thousands of foreign tourists coming to the country.

Any threat to the tourism industry also risks slowing down the performance of auxiliary sectors such as airlines and airports. Of the 1.6 million foreign tourists who visited Kenya last year, 95 per cent or 1.5 million entered the country through JKIA – which is also an important hub for international airlines flying to other parts of Africa.

Nairobi’s hotels and conference facilities are also important drivers of the tourism industry’s growth having hosted more than 80 per cent of the estimated 400,000 business and conference tourists who visited Kenya last year.

The US embassy’s definition of the Shabaab threat as targeting foreigners in Nairobi should be of particular interest to Kenyan authorities who must secure the more than 20,000 international civil servants, diplomats and aid workers in the city or risk a damaging public relations coup in the capital.

The foreigners, most of whom earn their salaries in hard currency, are a significant source of foreign exchange — especially at this time when Kenya is struggling to keep its currency afloat. International civil servants and aid agency workers are also the engine that drives the top end of Nairobi’s consumer market that was valued at Sh110 billion last year.

Shabaab’s focus on foreigners also puts Nairobi’s top hotels in the list of possible targets, a threat that authorities have responded to by cordoning off some of the installations.

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