NAIROBI // Somalia’s Al Shabab Islamist rebels attacked a bus in northern Kenya at dawn on Saturday, singling out and killing 28 passengers who could not recite an Islamic creed and were assumed to be non-Muslims, said Kenyan police.
Those who could not say the Shahada were shot at close range, a survivor said.
Nineteen men and nine women were killed in the bus attack.
Al Shabab claimed responsibility for the killings through its radio station in Somalia, saying it was in retaliation for raids by Kenyan security forces carried out earlier this week on four mosques at the Kenyan coast.
Kenya’s military said it responded to the killings with airstrikes on Saturday that destroyed the attackers’ camp in Somalia and killed 45 rebels.
The bus travelling to the capital Nairobi with 60 passengers was hijacked about 50 kilometres from the town of Mandera near Kenya’s border with Somalia.
The attackers first tried to wave the bus down but it did not stop, so the gunmen sprayed it with bullets. When that did not work they fired a rocket-propelled grenade at it.
The gunmen took control of the vehicle and forced it off the road where they ordered all the passengers out of the vehicle and separated those who appeared to be non-Muslims – mostly non-Somalis – from the rest.
George Ochwodho, a non-Muslim head teacher of a private primary school in Mandera, survived the attack. He was travelling home for Christmas since school had closed.
Mr Ochwodho said the passengers who did not look Somali were separated from the others. The non-Somali passengers were then asked to recite the Shahada. Those who could not recite the creed were ordered to lie down. Mr Ochwodho was among those who had to lie on the ground.
Two gunmen started shooting those on the ground; one gunman started from the left and other from the right, Mr Ochwodho said. When they reached him they were confused on whether either had shot him, he said.
Mr Ochwodho laid still until the gunmen left. He then ran back to the road and got a lift from a lorry back to Mandera where he was rushed to hospital. He spoke from a hospital bed where he was being treated for shock.
Seventeen of the 28 dead were teachers, said police in Mandera County.
A shortage of personnel and lack of equipment led to a slow response by police when the information was received.
The attackers had more sophisticated weapons than the police, who waited for military reinforcements before
Kenya has been hit by a series of gun and bomb attacks blamed on Al Shabab, who are linked to Al Qaeda, since it sent troops into Somalia in October 2011.
Authorities say there have been at least 135 attacks by Al Shabab since then, including the assault on Nairobi’s upmarket Westgate Mall in September last year, which killed 67 people.
Al Shabab said it was responsible for other attacks on Kenya’s coast earlier this year that killed at least 90 people.
Al Shabab was becoming “more entrenched and a graver threat to Kenya”, warned the International Crisis Group in a report in September to mark the first anniversary of the Westgate attack.
It said Al Shabab was exploiting long-standing grievances of Kenya’s Muslim community, such as official discrimination and marginalisation.
Kenya has been struggling to contain growing extremism in the country.
Earlier this week the authorities shut down four mosques at the Kenyan coast after police said they found explosives and a gun when they raided the mosques.
Some Muslims believe the police planted the weapons to justify closing the mosques,
Kheled Khalifa, a human-rights activist, said on Friday that the government’s methods to tackle the Islamists would increase support for the radicals.
One person was killed during the raid on two of the mosques on Monday. Police said they shot dead a young man trying to hurl a grenade at them.
The government had said the four mosques were recruitment centres for Al Shabab.
* Associated Press