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A Mysterious Plane Crash Could Worsen Tensions Between Kenya and Somalia

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The mysterious crash this week of a cargo plane registered in Kenya that was delivering COVID-19 relief supplies in neighboring Somalia is threatening to exacerbate existing political tensions between the two countries. After leaving Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, the private aircraft made one medical supply drop before heading to Bardale, a town in Somalia’s southern Bay region. A local Somali official told the Associated Press that a projectile hit the plane as it approached the Bardale runway. The six-person crew, made up of two Kenyans and four Somalis, were all killed.

Kenya’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs immediately demanded an investigation, warning the crash could impact “humanitarian operations at a time of highest need.” In response, Somalia’s president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, ordered his country’s civil aviation authorities to work with their Kenyan counterparts to explore the cause of the crash—an attempt to ratchet down his government’s already fraught relationship with Nairobi.

The two countries are embroiled in a maritime border dispute over control of a 62,000-square-mile triangle of the Indian Ocean that is believed to be rich in oil and gas deposits, as Julian Hattem explained in an April WPR briefing. The relationship was further strained when fighting between Somali government troops and forces allied with the leader of one of Somalia’s semiautonomous regions spilled over into Kenyan territory in March.

Without a clear explanation for this week’s crash, the situation risks devolving into a “blame game that spirals out of control,” one regional analyst told The New York Times.

Early suspicion has focused on the Somalia-based al-Qaida affiliate, al-Shabab, which is active in the region, though Ethiopian and Somali troops control the airfield where the plane crashed.

The Islamist extremist group has maintained daily attacks against Somali security forces, government officials and civilians even as the coronavirus continues to spread, Abdullahi Abdille Shahow reported for WPR this month, putting “an extra strain on the fragile Somali government” while ignoring the risk to civilians living in the territories al-Shabab controls.

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