Nearly 50 killed in Kenya as suspected militants target civilians
MOMBASA, Kenya // At least 49 people were killed when suspected Shebab militants from Somalia stormed into a Kenyan coastal town on Monday and launched a major assault on a police station, hotels and government offices.
Around 50 heavily-armed gunmen drove into the town of Mpeketoni, near the coastal island and popular tourist resort of Lamu on Sunday, officials said.
Witnesses said they first attacked a police station, before starting to randomly shoot at civilians, some of whom had been watching the World Cup in local bars and hotels.
District deputy commissioner Benson Maisori said several buildings in the town – which is about 100 kilometres from the border with Somalia – were burned down. They included hotels, restaurants, banks and government offices.
“There were around 50 attackers, heavily armed in three vehicles, and they were flying the Shebab flag. They were shouting in Somali and shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ [‘God is Greatest’ in Arabic],” he said, adding they attacked a police station but officers fought them off.
Resident Anne Gathigi, 38, a mother of five, said the attackers killed her husband.
“They forced their way into our house, found us in the bedroom. They picked up my husband and took him to the sitting room where they demanded money from him, as soon as he gave them some cash, they shot him at close range,” she said.
“Then they turned to me and asked me if I knew Al Shebab. They told me since ‘our government has refused to pull our soldiers from Somalia, they had come to leave us ‘widows and orphans’.”
Local resident and witness John Waweru, 28, lost two of his brothers in the attack.
“I heard them shouting in Somali as they fired around. I lost two of my brothers, and I escaped. I ran and locked up myself in a house,” he said.
The fierce gun battles continued until after midnight, but by dawn on Monday the town of Mpeketoni was reportedly calm with security forces saying they were in pursuit of the attackers and authorities recovering the dead.
Police spokeswoman Zipporah Mboroki confirmed that 49 people had died, including at least one police officer.
“Our officers are still combing the area,” Kenyan police chief David Kimaiyo said, adding they suspected the involvement of Al Shebab in the attack.
“It is an atrocity we would not want to see repeated anywhere else,” he said.
Kenya sent its troops to Somalia in October 2011 to fight the Shebab, later joining the now 22,000-strong African Union force battling the Al Qaeda-linked militants.
The Shebab vowed revenge, carrying out a string of attacks on Kenyan soil, including last September’s assault on Nairobi’s Westgate mall in which at least 67 people were killed.
The town of Mpeketoni, a trading centre on the main coastal road, lies on the mainland some 30 kilometres southwest of Lamu island, a popular tourist destination whose ancient architecture is listed as a Unesco World Heritage site.
Kenyan army spokesman Major Emmanuel Chirchir described how the gunmen had stormed the town, overwhelming local police officers, and firing from vehicles “shooting people around in town”.
Mr Chirchir also said the attackers were “likely to be Al Shebab”, although there was no immediate claim of responsiblity from the Islamists themselves.
Military surveillance planes were launched shortly after the attack began.
Residents in villages surrounding the town also reported that the gunmen attacked settlements as they pulled out after fighting in Mpeketoni.
“There are six bodies here, a man and a child in their house, four lying on the road,” said Mohammed Hassan, a local resident of Kibaoni, a small settlement some five kilometres outside the town.
Last month one of the Shebab’s most senior commanders, Fuad Mohamed Khalaf, released radio broadcasts urging fighters to strike Kenya.
Hundreds of British tourists were also evacuated last month from beach resorts near Kenya’s port city of Mombasa following warnings of terror attacks from Britain’s Foreign Office.
Britain this week released warnings to citizens in several East African nations – including Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda, who all have troops in Somalia – citing the threat of attacks at public screenings of the World Cup.
The region saw a spate of kidnappings of foreign tourists in 2011 that Kenya said was part of its motivation for attacking al-Shabab in Somalia. Since those attacks and subsequent terror warnings, tourism has dropped off sharply around Lamu.
* Agence France-Presse, additional reporting from Associated Press
Published: June 16, 2014 04:00 AM