MOMBASA Kenya (Reuters) - Suspected Somali Islamist militants have abducted five Kenyans who were transporting the stimulant khat on Kenya's northern coast, a regional official said, the latest in a string of incidents blamed on the Somali rebels.
Somalia's al Shabaab group has launched a series of attacks on the coast in recent months, saying the attacks are punishment for Kenya's sending troops to Somalia to fight them.
In the latest attack, two drivers and three assistants were attacked by a group of militants as they transported the khat, according to Miiri Njenga, county commissioner for Lamu, the region where the abductions took place.
"We believe the captors fled to Somalia with the five men. We have reliable leads and we hope to bust them and rescue the captives," Njenga said. The abduction took place on Friday night on the Milimani-Kiunga road, which leads to Garissa and onward into Somalia, he said.
"The area of this kidnapping is same one where another vehicle carrying khat was hijacked and the driver beheaded by the Al Shabaab in August," said Njenga.
Khat, also known as qat, are the leaves of a plant grown in Kenya and elsewhere in the region that are chewed as an intoxicant, an activity that al Shabaab has banned in areas of Somalia when it was in control.
The group wants to impose its strict version of Islam on Somalia, but has steadily lost territory in an offensive led by an African Union force, which includes the Kenyan troops.
Last Sunday, a force of African peacekeepers and the Somali army captured the port town of Barawe, the last major coastal stronghold held by the Somali militants. Analysts say the group, which is skilled at guerrilla tactics, will remain a threat, however.
Showing its regional reach, al Shabaab claimed responsibility for a deadly attack last year on a Nairobi shopping mall and also said it was behind string of attacks in the northern coastal area near Lamu that killed dozens in June.
Reporting by Joseph Akwiri; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Larry King