NAIROBI (Reuters) - Kenya on Tuesday ordered all Somali refugees living in urban areas to return to their camps in a bid to end attacks by Islamist militants carried out in retaliation for Kenya's intervention in neighboring Somalia.
Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku issued the order citing "emergency security challenges" in Kenyan towns, but the move is likely to be criticized by rights groups which have discouraged similar actions in the past.
Until now, refugees who could support themselves or were in need of specialized education or medical care had been allowed to live in urban areas.
Lenku said "all refugees residing outside the designated refugee camps of Kakuma and Dadaab are hereby directed to return to their respective camps with immediate effect" adding anyone who flouted the direction would be prosecuted.
The refugees, around 1.1 million, are required to be housed at Dadaab, close to the Somali border, and at Kakuma, near Kenya's frontier with South Sudan.
Lenku also said all refugee registration centers in Nairobi, Mombasa, Isiolo to the north and Nakuru in the northwest would be closed. He urged Kenyans to report refugees or illegal immigrants found outside the camps.
Kenyan security officials believe militants have used the refugee camps as bases to prepare attacks and then mingled with residents in urban areas to carry them out.
The al Qaeda-linked Somali Islamist militant group al Shabaab and its sympathizers have carried out several attacks in Kenya, including at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi last year in which at least 67 people were killed.
On Sunday, gunmen killed six worshippers in a church near the coastal city of Mombasa. Last week, police said they had arrested two men found to have two large bombs in a car which they intended to use in Mombasa.
In January last year, a similar move by the government to relocate an estimated 100,000 urban Somali refugees brought condemnation from Human Rights Watch.
In November 2012, prior to a plan to restrict Somali refugees to camps, street battles erupted between Kenyans and ethnic Somalis in Eastleigh, a part of Nairobi commonly dubbed "Little Mogadishu" because of its large Somali population, after a bomb on a minibus killed seven people in the area.
Al Shabaab militants have threatened to carry out further attacks if Kenyan troops do not withdraw from Somalia where they are battling Islamist insurgents as part of an African Union peacekeeping force.
(Reporting by James Macharia and Joseph Akwiri; Writing by James Macharia; Editing by Janet Lawrence)