REPORTING FROM NAIROBI, KENYA -- The U.S. ambassador to Kenya denied any American involvement in Kenya's military operation in Somalia, which is designed to drive the extremist Islamic militia Shabab out of its bases in the south of that conflict-ridden nation.
But the U.S. was continuing to provide help to ensure Kenya's internal security, Ambassador Scott Gration said Friday.
"We don’t have a military operation outside the border of Kenya," he told a Nairobi news conference. "We have been providing our assistance in an overt way through the Kenya navy, army and air force for a long time, and we will continue. We are not in Somalia. Our support is through equipment."
Critics and aid groups have strongly criticized the timing of the Kenyan operation, as Somalia faces its worst famine in two decades. Kenya has sealed its border with Somalia, causing the steady stream of thousands of refugees to come to an abrupt halt.
Kenyan Internal Security Minister George Saitoti told the Daily Nation newspaper that Kenya had no intention of occupying Somalia, only pursuing Shabab. He said troops would come home when the threat was eliminated.
Kenyan forces in Somalia came under fire Thursday for the first time since entering the neighboring country nearly two weeks ago. Details were unclear about casualties in the attack on a convoy in southern Somalia.
In another attack, a blast hit a Kenyan paramilitary convoy Friday in eastern Kenya, injuring several troops.
On Friday, a Kenyan court sentenced a 28-year-old Kenyan man to life in prison after he pleaded guilty to carrying out a grenade attack at a crowded bus station earlier in the week and claimed to be a member of Shabab.
After converting to Islam several years ago, Elgiva Bwire Oliacha traveled to Mogadishu, where he got military training from Shabab and joined the fight against the Somali transitional government and African Union forces in the country.
He returned recently when Shabab leaders ordered him to carry out attacks in Kenya.
Shabab has threatened major suicide bombings in Nairobi in retaliation against Kenya's military incursion into Somalia.
-- Robyn Dixon
Photo: A Kenyan soldier stands guard at the Garrisa airstrip near the Somali-Kenyan border on Oct. 18. Credit: Reuters