NAIROBI (Reuters) - Kenya said on Wednesday it had to agreed delay the closure of a teeming Somali refugee camp that it sees as a security risk, after international pressure to give residents more time to find new homes.
Nairobi had vowed to shut Dadaab camp this month, saying it was being used by Islamist militants from neighboring Somalia who have launched a string of attacks on Kenyan soil.
But rights groups criticized the decision, saying it would hurt Somalis fleeing violence and poverty, and accused Nairobi of forcibly sending people back to a war zone. The government dismisses that allegation.
"The government has accepted the request to extend the deadline for the completion of repatriation of Somali refugees, and this is essential to the closure of the Dadaab refugee complex, by six months," Interior Minister Joseph Ole Nkaissery said.
"However, the ongoing voluntary repatriation will continue uninterrupted," he told a news conference.
This week, a ministry official had told Reuters that the November deadline would be missed, although he did not give a new timetable. He also dismissed accusations from Amnesty International and others about forcible repatriations.
The official said the camp was now home to about 250,000 people, while U.N. officials had put the figure at about 350,000 at the start of the year.
More than half a million people lived there a few years ago.
"Kenya should end its threats to close the Dadaab camps," Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
"The U.N. refugee agency and donors should press Kenya to publicly reassure Somalia refugees they are welcome in Kenya until it safe for them to return,” he added.
Somalia's Western-backed government is battling an Islamist insurgency as it oversees a fragile reconstruction effort after decades of conflict. Swathes of the country do not have basic services.
(Reporting by Humphrey Malalo and Duncan Miriri; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Hugh Lawson)