NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) - An air strike hit a refugee camp in southern Somalia, killing at least five people and wounding 45 people, most of them children, an international aid agency said Monday. Kenya's military acknowledged carrying out an air raid but said it targeted only Islamist militants.
A Somali Islamist militant group used the casualties as a recruitment tool to try to win new recruits. Kenyan military spokesman Maj. Emmanuel Chirchir, though, blamed an al-Shabab fighter for the civilian deaths, saying the militant drove a burning truck of ammunition into the camp in the town of Jilib where it exploded.
Chirchir said the Kenyan air force hit the truck on Sunday as it drove away from an al-Shabab training camp and it caught fire. He accused the driver of attempting to use the refugees as a human shield from being bombed again.
But Doctors Without Borders, also known as Medicines Sans Frontieres or MSF, said the aerial bombardment hit the camp for displaced people. MSF said it treated 52 wounded people. As of Monday morning, MSF confirmed five deaths and said it was still treating 45 wounded, 31 of them being children. Seven other patients had been discharged after receiving treatment. The head of the MSF mission in Somalia, Gautam Chatterjee, said his medical team reported that most of the wounded had shrapnel injuries.
There was no way to immediately reconcile the different versions of the aerial attack. Either way, civilian casualties would be a public relations issue for Kenya and could turn ordinary Somalis against Kenya's military intervention in the lawless nation.
Residents said hundreds ran for cover as bombs exploded. The town's population has ballooned this year as about 1,500 families fled to the area amid a famine that has wracked the south. Residents reported that al-Shabab fighters were among the casualties.
Sheik Abukar Ali Aden, an al-Shabab official in southern Somalia, used the deaths to try to raise support for the militants. He said the militants donated food rations to those affected by the airstrikes. Bearded men and masked fighters used megaphones to ask Somalis to join their militant group.
"I am urging all Muslims in the Jubba regions to raise their heads and defend themselves against the enemy massacring them," he said at a news conference in the southern port town of Kismayo. "Go! go to the front lines and make jihad with the Christian enemy."
MSF said in a statement that it was transporting the wounded to the hospital in Marere, noting it had limited surgical capacity.
Jilib town elder Ahmed Sheik Don said the planes hit a bus stop and near the camp before finally hitting a base of al-Shabab, an insurgent group linked to al-Qaida.
Chirchir said 10 al-Shabab members were killed and 47 wounded in the attack, citing informers on the ground.
Kenya sent troops across the border into Somalia in mid-October following cross-border kidnappings blamed on gunmen from southern Somalia.
Somali Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali said his government is looking into the airstrike and reports of civilian deaths.
"If it has taken place then it is an unfortunate incident and we are sorry about that," Ali said during a press conference in Nairobi alongside Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga.
Odinga added: "Our troops have not targeted civilians. It would be most unfortunate."
The U.N. representative for Somalia, Augustine P. Mahiga, said the U.N. could not confirm the accuracy of any version of events, but he said that civilian lives must be protected during any party's military operations. He said the U.N. hopes that Kenya's push into southern Somalia will help gain access to famine victims.
"We think this in the end will contribute to the sum total of gaining more territory, greater security and therefore more access to the victims of famine and drought, especially in south-central Somalia," Mahiga said.
The Danish Refugee Council, meanwhile, said it has made its first contact with an American aid worker and her Danish colleague who were kidnapped last week in northern Somalia.
"It has been some very long days as we have been waiting for signs of life. It is truly a relief that we now have received the message that they are as well as possible their circumstances taken into consideration," said Ann Mary Olsen, the head of the Danish Refugee Council's International Department.
Olsen said the aid agency is appealing to traditional leaders and clan elders to help release the hostages.
Somalia has not had a functioning government since 1991. African Union troops have been engaged in fierce fighting in the country's the capital to push Islamist militants out of their last base in the city. On Saturday, the Islamists launched an attack with two suicide bombers, killing at least 10 people. The militants said one of the suicide bombers was a Somali-American.
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