|Ugandan authorities have repatriated seven suspected members of the Sabaot Land Defence Force amid reports that the top leaders of the militia may have fled the country just days before the military operation was launched.
|Security officers patrol Kipsigon trading centre in Chebyuk, Mt Elgon District. A joint police and military operation was recently launched to crack down on the Sabaot Land Defence Force, which has been blamed for killings sparked by disputed land allocation in the district. Photo/JARED NYATAYA
Sources in Mt Elgon said that the suspected leader of the militia, 24-year-old Wycliffe Kirui Komon Matakwei, and about 450 of his men, fled the Chemondi Kimama area – where the conflict that has claimed 700 lives and displaced 80,000 people in 18 months of clashes started. The group fled two days ahead of the joint army/police crackdown.
“They left in three squads,” said a source linked to the rebel leader. “Most of the boys escaped with their ammunition. They had been informed of the military plan days before.”
Track down leaders
However, the security personnel leading the Mt Elgon crackdown do not believe this claim. At the weekend, the joint army/police operation media liaison officer, Mr Charles Wahong’o, said: “Whatever it takes, however long, we will track down the (SLDF) leaders. We have to bring them to book.”
One of those on the “wanted list” was elected as a councillor in Mt Elgon during the December elections. He is described as one of the group’s commanders. Although local government authorities said the suspect was not sworn in, other sources claimed he secretly took the oath of office a week after the other councillors.
Ugandan authorities seized the seven suspects on the Lwakhakha side of its border on March 15. The suspects were then handed over to Kenyan authorities immediately.
“We are working closely with Ugandan authorities,” Mt Elgon district commissioner Mohamed Birik said in an interview with the Nation at his Kapsokwony offices.
The hunt is on for a Laiboni (community elder) called Psongoywo who is believed to have escaped into Uganda. He is the alleged architect of the militia and the person believed to have administered an oath on the fighters.
Holed up in caves
The joint army/police operation command said it was aware that word leaked about the impending crackdown against the militias. However, sources in the army said they still believed the group was holed up in caves in areas such as Chemondi, Chebwek, Kimama and near the top of Mt Elgon.
Some militias had offered to surrender to the Cheptais district officer, Mr K. Tirop, at Kapkironga Trading Centre near the foot of the mountain. “We waited but they didn’t appear,” Mr Tirop said at the weekend.
The area’s acting chief, Mr Jamin Chemos, said hundreds of youths were picked up by soldiers to assist in investigations. He said it was true that the militia forcibly conscripted some youths in his area. “They were then given pangas, knives and were trained on how to fight.”
Soldiers and the police mounted an operation at Kapkirongo after rumours that Matakwei, the leader of the militia, was to hold a meeting there.
“The Army was given wrong information. Matakwei was not here,” said Mr Chemos.
A source on Friday said that a David Sichei, who is believed to have trained the youths, surrendered on Thursday. The police also seized 17 guns from him. Sichei is an Israeli-trained former guard attached to the presidential security detail.
“He gave himself up Sunday and gave us valuable information about the whereabouts of his comrades in crime. We know they are here in Mt Elgon and in Uganda,” said the source.
Earlier in the day, the Kapsokwony district officer, Mr Donald Koech, had revealed that security personnel were closing in on Sichei and Matakwei.
Three-quarters of Mt Elgon district is under forest cover, which complicates any military onslaught. The area also has many caves, some extending to the Ugandan side. Among the communities that live in the district are the Sabaots, Bukusu and Teso, whose members are to be found on either side of the Kenya/Uganda border.
The security operation has paralysed many businesses and other activities in the districts. Hundreds of suspects have been arrested but many of them were later freed after interrogation. Some civilians claimed that hundreds of people had been killed in the bombings of the caves and other parts of the forest, allegations denied by security officials who talk about “a dozen or so” but insist they need time to compile the death toll.
Some residents also claimed that a military aircraft had been dropping the bodies of militiamen at Chesakwa, deep in the Mt Elgon forest, and at Ng’atip Kong, where the militias used to kill and dump their victims. “The bodies are being airlifted and thrown out deep in the forest,” said a community elder.
Sources at Webuye and Bungoma hospitals, the largest referral centres in the region, said the mortuaries had not received any bodies from Mt Elgon since the operation began a fortnight ago. Bungoma and Webuye hospitals had received one and nine bodies of victims before the military operation began.
Mt Elgon district commissioner Mohamed Birik said the security personnel had seized 30 firearms and hundreds of grenades. Human rights activists, including Job Bwonya of the Western Kenya Human Rights Watch, said the security chiefs could do better. “That there were close to 3,000 militias in the forests and caves out there, we tend to think the SLDF had something like 1,500 guns at their disposal,” said the organisation’s executive director.
The security team is looking for Matakwei’s father and Psongoywo, who is said to have administered oaths on the boys, making them believe they could not be felled by police bullets.
In the early days of the operation, an unknown number of militias were bombed in a cave after they defied an order to surrender, said a highly placed source in the provincial administration in Western Province.
The military has vowed to track down the militia that has killed about 700 people in Mt Elgon and the larger Trans Nzoia districts since August 2006. The figure of the death toll was compiled by the Western Kenya Human Rights Watch, an NGO. Of those victims, about 200 died in the past three months, raising the possibility that the insurgents may have taken advantage of the post-election violence to escalate their attacks.
Some of the bodies are lying unclaimed at the Webuye mortuary, said hospital sources. Security sources said the operation had discovered mass graves at Ng’atip Kong and at Meza.
The Mt Elgon conflict was sparked by a dispute over land allocation in the district. Corruption riddled the Chebyuk Settlement Scheme Phase Three allocations after some squatters who had lived on the land were evicted after they allegedly failed to acquire the plots.
Among those who missed out on the allocation was one community elder identified as Psongoywo and a Matakwei, father of the militia’s leader, Wycliffe Matakwei. The two owned 200 acres each which they then subdivided among their sons. “When they were evicted by the provincial administration, the area erupted in violence and their sons went to the bush to fight,” said a source.
But Mr Wahong’o, the security operations press officer, said the conflict had moved from land clashes to the targeting of innocent people in Mt Elgon, Trans Nzoia and Bungoma districts. “The crisis was in Chebyuk but the killings are being done outside. These are criminals,” he said.
He urged the displaced families to return. “We call upon those who are innocent to go back home. Everything is all right.”