Reuters International

MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Somalia protested on Thursday against Kenyan plans to close a refugee camp packed with hundreds of thousands of Somali citizens, saying the move would increase the threat of militancy in the region.

Kenya had announced a day earlier it was drawing up a timetable to shut Dadaab camp, shrugging off pleas to reconsider the move by the United Nations and rights groups.

The vast settlement on the Kenyan side of the Somali border houses about 350,000 Somalis and other refugees taking shelter from conflicts raging across the region. Kenya says militants have also used it as a base to launch attacks.

But Somalia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said any move to close it would only hurt the refugees and possibly drive more people into militancy.

"Expelling vulnerable Somali refugees at a time Somalia is making internationally recognised progress towards stability and institution building, will only increase the risk of insecurity in the region," the ministry said.

"This decision will negatively affect the majority of Somali refugees ... and will make the threat of terrorism worse, not better," it added.

Somalia's Western-backed government is struggling to rebuild the country after more than two decades of turmoil, first at the hands of clan warlords, then Islamist militants.

Kenya says fighters from Somalia's al Shabaab militant group have used the camp as a launch pad for attacks on the nearby Garissa university in 2015 and other targets.

Last year, Kenya said it was setting a three-month deadline to close Dadaab, but backtracked on following U.N. condemnation of any forced return.

The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, Kenya and Somalia signed a tripartite deal in 2013 to repatriate Somali refugees voluntarily, including 50,000 in 2016.

But UNHCR acknowledged at the time it would be difficult to carry out, given the continuing al Shabaab insurgency and the poor state of schools and public services in Somalia.

(Reporting by Abdi Sheikh; Editing by George Obulutsa and Andrew Heavens)

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