NAIROBI — Kenya’s internal security minister George Saitoti, a key figure in his country’s fight against Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab insurgents in neighbouring Somalia, was killed in a helicopter crash Sunday.
His death was hailed by his foes in the Shebab but they stopped short of making a claim of responsibility for the crash, whose cause has not yet been determined.
“(Shebab) welcomes the death of the evil minister upon whose authorisation thousands of Muslims suffered both in Somalia and in Kenya,” the group said a message on its Twitter account.
Saitoti, 66, and five other people were killed when a police helicopter went down in the Ngong hills outside the capital shortly after take-off from Nairobi’s Wilson airport.
The other victims were Joshua Orwa Ojode, the assistant minister for internal security, the two pilots — including a woman — and two bodyguards.
President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga paid tribute to Saitoti, who played a prominent role in the campaign against Somali insurgents, blamed for a series of terror attacks and kidnappings on Kenyan soil.
“The government will ensure a thorough probe” into the cause of the crash, Odinga told journalists at the crash site.
Saitoti, who was planning to run for president next year to succeed Kibaki, was on his way to attend a religious ceremony in western Kenya when the Eurocopter came down in the Kibuku forest around 8:30 am (0530 GMT).
An AFP journalist saw six bodies charred beyond recognition being removed from the wreckage, while wads of bank notes lay scattered at the scene.
Investigators from the police, the Kenya Airports Authority (KAA) and the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority sealed off the area to try to establish the cause of the accident.
“Most probably it was caused by bad weather, it was foggy at the time it went down,” a police officer involved in the investigation told AFP.
Another police source said Kenya had acquired the aircraft, which was fitted with state-of-the-art equipment, just five months ago.
One witness, farmer Ole Tolei, told AFP he had seen the aircraft “flying very low. It came down suddenly and we heard a loud explosion, and then it burst into flames.”
Saitoti’s ministerial role meant he controlled the state’s top investigative arms, the National Security Intelligence Service and the Criminal Investigation Department.
Kenya sent thousands of troops into southern Somalia in October to fight the Shebab and protect its border. It was Saitoti who made the first public announcement of the invasion, a full two days after Kenyan troops crossed the border.
The Kenyan force has since been joined by Ethiopia in a bid to rout the Islamist group from their strongholds in the south and centre of the country.
Since Kenyan troops entered Somalia, several people have been killed in a series of attacks in border areas, and a bomb blast in a Nairobi shopping centre last month wounded 38 people.
Saitoti declared recently that the government would not be cowed by “terrorists”.
But the Shebab warned Sunday that it would exact revenge for the actions of foreign forces in Somalia.
“For the hundreds of Muslims killed and displaced by Kenya’s brutal invasion, Saitoti’s death is but a droplet of justice in a sea of oppression,” Shebab tweeted.
“The remaining invaders should be expectant that Allah will inflict his punishment by himself upon the kuffar (infidels) or by the hands of mujahideen,” the militia said.
Kibaki said Sunday’s deaths were “a devastating loss to our country,” adding: “Minister Saitoti will forever be remembered as a hardworking and determined public servant who dedicated his time to the service of the Kenyan people.”
Saitoti had also served as finance minister and was vice-president in the administration of Daniel Arap Moi from 1989-1997 and again from 1999-2002.
He jumped ship ahead of the 2002 election to join the opposition camp led by Kibaki after Moi, constitutionally barred from standing again, chose the then little-known Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Kenya’s founding father, as his successor.