HINDI, KENYA: At least 21 people have been killed in new attacks in Kenya’s Lamu coastal region, the area where some 60 people were massacred last month, Kenyan authorities said Sunday.
A spokesman for Somalia’s Shebab rebels claimed that the Al-Qaeda-linked group’s fighters had struck again in Kenya, although police blamed the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), a group that campaigns for independence of the coastal region. In a separate incident, a Russian tourist was shot dead in the port city of Mombasa further south, which the police blamed on common ‘thuggery’ - explaining the woman had resisted an attempt to steal her camera.
Police said the attacks late on Saturday near Lamu, carried out in the trading post of Hindi and the town of Gamba, left 21 people dead, while the Kenyan Red Cross said it had confirmed 22 deaths.
‘We had attacks at night where people were killed and houses destroyed. We have mobilised our officers and we are on the ground,’ said Robert Kitur, a senior Lamu police official. Police said unidentified gunmen also torched several houses and attacked Gamba’s police station, freeing a suspect held over the attacks last month in the region. One policeman was among the dead, officials said. Witnesses said many of the victims had their hands tied behind their backs and their throats slit.
‘Preliminary investigation shows the attack was carried out by MRC members,’ Kenya’s deputy police chief Grace Kaindi told a press conference at the police headquarters. ‘There is also evidence that the attacks are motivated by political and religious issues.’ Kenyan Vice President William Ruto, who visited the area of the attack, vowed the attackers would be caught ‘dead or alive’.
‘Those who perpetuate this mayhem must be either arrested or killed,’ he told reporters. ‘The criminals are here in Lamu. We want the security teams to show results of the operation in 48 hours.’ An AFP reporter in Hindi said all the dead in the town were men, apart from a teenage boy, who was reportedly shot as he tried to run away. The attackers also left messages scribbled in English and Swahili on a blackboard taken from a school.
‘You invade Muslim country and you want to stay in peace,’ one message stated. Resident Elizabeth Opindo said she had actually spoken to the attackers, who set fire to her home but let her live, saying they did not kill women. She said there were about 10 attackers, speaking a mix of English, Swahili and Somali, all common Kenyan languages.
‘They said they were attacking because Muslims’ lands were being taken,’ she told AFP. In a statement issued just hours after the violence, Somalia’s Shebab rebels said they were responsible. ‘The attackers came back home safely to their base,’ Shebab military spokesman Abdulaziz Abu Musab said, adding the militants had killed 10 people.
The Shebab also claimed responsibility for last month’s attack at Mpeketoni, saying it was in retaliation for Kenya’s military presence in Somalia as part of the African Union force supporting the country’s fragile and internationally-backed government. Survivors of the previous massacres reported how gunmen speaking Somali and carrying Shebab flags killed non-Muslims in revenge for Kenya’s presence in Somalia. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, however, denied that the Shebab were involved and instead blamed ‘local political networks’ and criminal gangs, saying victims had been singled out because of their ethnicity. Mpeketoni is a mainly Christian town in the Muslim-majority coastal region, and was settled decades ago by the Kikuyu people from central Kenya, the same tribe as Kenyatta.
Police also arrested alleged MRC members as well as the opposition-affiliated governor of Lamu county in the wake of the Mpeketoni attack. Lamu island is a well-known tourist destination which features ancient architecture that is listed as a Unesco World Heritage site. The unrest in the coastal region has already badly dented Kenya’s tourist industry - a key foreign currency earner and massive employer for the country - at one of its traditionally busiest times of the year.
In a further blow to the sector, a Russian tourist was murdered on Saturday in Mombasa while touring Fort Jesus - a 16th century Portuguese-built fort and another UNESCO World Heritage Site - in what police said was a violent robbery. ‘We are treating the incident as a normal thuggery incident,’ Kaindi told reporters, apparently trying to ease fears that Islamic extremists were targeting foreign tourists along the coast. Last month the Shebab, which has carried out a number of attacks on Kenyan soil in retaliation for Nairobi’s military intervention in Somalia, warned foreign tourists to stay out of Kenya.
‘Kenya is now officially a war zone and as such any tourists visiting the country do so at their own peril,’ the group said in a statement less than three weeks ago. But Kenya also suffers from high levels of violent crime and robberies. In May several countries stepped up their warnings to travellers, with Britain, France, Australia and the United States telling their citizens to avoid all but essential travel to Mombasa.