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Kenyan authorities defend the secret transfers of prisoners

NAIROBI, Kenya—Kenyan authorities on Wednesday defended the secret transfers of dozens of prisoners to war-torn Somalia and rejected allegations that its ally the United States was directing its actions. The U.S. government refused to confirm or deny allegations that it played a significant behind-the-scenes role.

A spokesman for Kenya's police, who'd detained at least 150 people who were caught fleeing December's U.S.-backed war against Islamist militias in Somalia, said top levels of government in Kenya and Somalia had directed the transfers of at least 80 of the prisoners.

The spokesman, Gideon Kibunja, said U.S. law enforcement agents had provided "consultations" to Kenyan authorities, who held and interrogated the prisoners. The countries routinely cooperate on terrorism cases in Kenya, where alleged al-Qaida operatives bombed the U.S. Embassy in 1998.

"Kenya is an independent state," Kibunja said. "We can consult with friends. We cannot take orders."

Human rights groups in Nairobi said detainees had reported that U.S. law-enforcement officials had questioned them. In Washington, FBI spokesman Richard Kolko said the agency "does not confirm or deny if an investigation is taking place." Kolko added: "We have no comment on this issue." The State Department also declined Wednesday to confirm or deny allegations of an American role in the questioning or the transfers.

The transfers of prisoners—on three middle-of-the-night charter flights in January and February—provoked concern among Muslim groups and human rights activists in Kenya, who successfully sued for the release of the records. The groups say the Kenyan authorities have provided no information on the detainees' whereabouts to their families and that Somalia's weak transitional government—the target of near-daily insurgent attacks—is unable to guarantee the prisoners' safety.

Human rights organizations here think that several prisoners were sent on to Ethiopia. Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia—with the support of U.S. intelligence, warships and military training—coordinated the military operation that defeated the Islamist militias, which Bush administration officials have linked to al-Qaida.

The secret transfers also have caused alarm because of the American government's past use in terrorism cases of so-called extraordinary renditions: the transfers of detainees by the CIA without court proceedings to foreign countries to be interrogated. Critics say the practice violates international law and has led to the torture of prisoners.

Somali government officials have acknowledged holding prisoners but say they're being treated humanely. However, none of the prisoners are in contact with their families.

One of the prisoners is Ibrahim Muhibitabo Clement, 38, an unemployed Rwandan who lived in Kenya with his family until mid-November. In search of work, he left his family that month and traveled by boat up Kenya's coast to Somalia, where the arrival of the Islamist regime had brought security and business opportunities.

His wife, Fatuma Muhamed Khan, 37, said in an interview in Nairobi that she had learned of his arrest in a telephone call in early January. For several days, she visited him at the prison, in a leafy Nairobi suburb called Kileleshwa.

Khan said Kenyan police officers routinely harassed her husband and her, calling them "al Qaida" and joking that there were grenades hidden in the food she brought from home.

One day she went to the prison and found he wasn't there, and officers said they didn't know his whereabouts. She complained to police, and an officer finally told her: "Madam, your husband has left for Somalia."

Rights groups are investigating the cases, but Khan and dozens of other family members have no further details about their loved ones.

Khan—who like many immigrants in Kenya is jobless—is struggling to pay the rent and feed her two young children, including a 3-month-old boy.

"My husband is not a Somali citizen," Khan said Wednesday. "He was trying to escape the violence in Somalia. Why would they send him back to Somalia?"

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(McClatchy Newspapers correspondent Jonathan S. Landay in Washington contributed to this article.)

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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