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147 killed in attack on Kenyan university dormitories by al-Shabab

Militants stormed dormitories at Garissa University, killing at least 147 people and taking others as hostages

NAIROBI — Masked al-Shabab militants stormed dormitories at a university in northeastern Kenya early Thursday, killing at least 147 people in the worst terror attack on Kenyan soil in nearly two decades, officials said.

More than 500 students were rescued after the Islamist militants, heavily armed and strapped with explosives, attacked the campus of Garissa University College around 5:30 a.m. local time, shooting some young people and taking others hostage. At least 79 people were injured, according to Kenya’s National Disaster Operation Center.

A government spokesman said the siege ended after 15 hours, with four gunmen from the Somali group having been killed.

“The gunmen are dead. There were four; they are all dead,” said Abdulkadir Sugow, spokesman for the Garissa governor. However, he could not confirm how they were killed.

“The fire exchange has now stopped,” Sugow said. “The next step is to reconcile, and to analyze the way forward.” Security forces have yet to enter the university compound, he continued. “Nothing can be ascertained fully,” he said.

A Kenyan soldier takes cover as shots are fired in front of Garissa University in Garissa town, northeast of the capital Nairobi

Outside the university, in the city of Garissa about 90 miles from the Somali border, confusion and tension dominated. Scores of students remained unaccounted for; many had jumped through a fence to escape the campus.

The gunmen had been holed up in the compound with an unconfirmed number of hostages. When they were shot by police, they exploded “like bombs,” said Kenya’s interior cabinet secretary, Joseph Nkaissery.

Ogutu Vquee, a student at the university, was sleeping in his dormitory when the gunmen arrived. He said there was indiscriminate shooting of both Muslims and non-Muslims, though there were reports that Muslims had been separated from Christians, who were targeted. “When they attacked us, most of us were asleep, so we were woken by the gunshots,” he said. “I am totally in fear and confusion.”

Rosalind Mugambi said she fled her dormitory in a panic, dodging gunfire. While she had been able to run across the sandy ground into a surrounding field, some of her friends had fallen. “We saw some blood stains, and they were shot,” she said.

A 19-year-old student from Nairobi, who asked not to be named, said that he transferred from Garissa University College to Nairobi after threats of an al-Shabab attack circulated in December. “Everybody had to go home because there was a lot of tension. Shabab was saying they were going to attack the school in one week’s time, so we went home. It was rumors, but we had to vacate.”

He said the students left in mid-December, missing the end-of-semester exams. “I transferred because of the tension.”

He said he was horrified to learn of the attack Thursday morning. “I was so frightened. People see normality and they think maybe al-Shabab will take two years [to strike]. I never ignored the threat.”

Paramedics help a student injured during the attack by Al-Shabaab extremists.

Paramedics help a student injured during the attack by Al-Shabaab extremists.

The massacre is the worst terror attack in Kenya since the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi in 1998, which killed 224. An attack on an upscale shopping mall in Nairobi in 2013 left 67 dead and renewed fears that al-Shabab could wage significant operations from its strongholds in neighboring Somalia.

Since the 2013 attack, the U.S. military has maintained a campaign of targeted drone strikes against the leaders of the al-Qaeda-affiliated group. Last month, one such strike killed Adnan Garaar, thought to be behind the mall attack and several others in the region.

An al-Shabab spokesman told Agence France-Presse that the gunmen had been holding Christian hostages. “When our men arrived, they released some of the people, the Muslims, and it is they that alerted the government. We are holding the others hostage,” Sheik Ali Mohamud Rage told AFP by telephone.

Al-Shabab considers Kenya an enemy in part because the country sent troops to Somalia in 2011 to fight the group. Kenyan troops remain stationed there as part of an African Union mission.

The recent attack comes 18 months after four al-Shabab gunmen killed shoppers at the Westgate mall.

U.S. drone strikes had recently appeared to be weakening the group, which has also lost territory within Somalia. American troops have been training African Union soldiers to defeat al-Shabab terrorists. Western sanctions are also thought to have struck a blow to its finances.

Last year, President Barack Obama pointed to the U.S. strategy in Somalia as an example of a successful counterterrorism campaign.

He called it a “strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the frontlines.”

But Thursday’s attack proved that al-Shabab still has the capacity to strike soft targets in the region, and with deadly effect.

The country’s border with Somalia is vast and largely unguarded. Attacks on many targets, particularly in rural Kenya, are incredibly difficult to prevent. The Garissa campus had little protection, despite recent security alerts at Kenyan universities.

Kenya is a key U.S. ally in the region, a product of its role in combating terrorism as well as its growing economy and prominence in East African geopolitics.

“The United States stands with the people of Kenya, who will not be intimidated by such cowardly attacks,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Thursday.

Last week, al-Shabab militants seized control of a Mogadishu hotel, killing at least 20 people, including Somalia’s ambassador to Switzerland.

Students at Garissa reported seeing notices warning of a possible attack on the campus. “As it was April 1, we just thought that it was fooling,” one student said. Several universities in Kenya reportedly had made students aware of a potential security threat by distributing posters around campuses.

Garissa University College, which opened in 2011, according to its Web site, is the first and only public university in Kenya’s arid and marginalized north.

“This is a moment for everyone throughout the country to be vigilant as we continue to confront and defeat our enemies,” Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said.

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Islamist with $3 million U.S. bounty surrenders to Somali authorities

A file photo taken on March 5, 2012 shows Al-Qaeda linked al-Shebab recruits walking down a street in Mogadishu. A top leader of al-Shebab rebels has surrendered to government and African Union forces and is now in custody, officials said

A file photo taken on March 5, 2012 shows Al-Qaeda linked al-Shebab recruits walking down a street in Mogadishu. A top leader of al-Shebab rebels has surrendered to government and African Union forces and is now in custody, officials said

A leader with the Islamic extremist group al-Shabab, who the United States offered $3 million for his capture, surrendered in Somalia, a Somali intelligence official said Saturday.

Zakariya Ismail Ahmed Hersi surrendered to Somali police in the Gedo region, said the intelligence officer, who insisted on anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press.

Hersi’s surrender would be the second major blow to al Shabaab’s leadership in just a few months. In September the group’s main leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, was killed by a U.S. drone strike. Hersi may have surrendered because he fell out with those loyal to Godane, the intelligence officer said.

State radio Web site Radio Muqdisho described Hersi as “the general secretary of al-Shabaab’s finance (department).” It did not give reasons for his surrender. But a senior member of al-Shabab’s media team told Reuters that Hersi left the Islamist group two years ago. “(Hersi) cannot have impact on al-Shabaab because he is not a member,” the al-Shabab member said.

Hersi was one of seven top al-Shabab officials whom the Obama administration offered a total $33 million in rewards for information leading to their capture in 2012. It is not clear whether the reward will be paid out for Hersi because he surrendered.

Despite major setbacks in 2014, al-Shabab remains a threat in Somalia and the East African region. The group has carried out many terror attacks in Somalia and some in neighboring countries including Kenya, whose armies are part of the African Union troops bolstering Somalia’s weak U.N.- backed government.

On Christmas Day, al-Shabab launched an attack at the African Union base in Mogadishu. Nine people died, including three African Union soldiers, in the attack on the complex, which also houses U.N. offices and Western embassies. Al-Shabab said the attack was aimed at a Christmas party and was in retaliation for the killing of the group’s leader Godane.

Al-Shabab is waging an Islamic insurgency against Somalia’s government that is attempting to rebuild the country after decades of conflict. Al-Shabab controlled much of Mogadishu during 2007 to 2011, but was pushed out of Somalia’s capital and other major cities by African Union forces.

The United States and the United Nations warn that political infighting in Somalia is putting the security gains at risk. The federal government remains weak and wields little power outside the capital Mogadishu.

South Sudan rebel leader ‘captures key state’

South Sudanese rebel leader Riek Machar says his troops have captured the key oil-producing state of Unity.

The former vice president also said on Saturday that the forces under his command fighting the government now have control of much of the country.

The political crisis began a week ago, after President Salva Kiir accused Machar of attempting a coup. Reports say at least 500 people have been killed in the violence since then.

On Friday, Kiir reportedly agreed to participate in an “unconditional dialogue” to end deadly violence in the African country.

The president made the commitment to a team of mediators sent to Juba by the African Union in an effort to end fighting in which hundreds of people have been killed, said UN Security Council President Gerard Araud.

Kiir has “apparently agreed to enter into unconditional dialogue,” Araud said after an emergency Security Council meeting on the crisis in South Sudan.

Meanwhile, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon again called for renewed peace efforts on Friday, amid rising concerns that heavy fighting between rival army factions is pushing the two-year-old nation into civil war.

“The secretary general reiterates his call for all parties to exercise restraint, and to cease hostilities,” said a statement from Ban’s office.

The UN chief urged opposition leaders “to demonstrate compromise and leadership on behalf of the Southern Sudanese people, and to resolve their personal differences through dialogue immediately.”

The fighting between troops loyal to Kiir, who is from the Dinka ethnic group, and opposition leader Riek Machar, a Nuer, erupted around Juba on December 15.

The South Sudanese president accused his arch-rival and former deputy, Machar, of attempting to topple his government, but he said the coup attempt had been foiled.

The government said on Tuesday that ten senior political figures had been arrested after the alleged coup attempt.

Machar has denied Kiir’s accusation that he had led a coup attempt.

South Sudan gained independence in July 2011 after its people overwhelmingly voted in a referendum for a split from the North.

The government in Juba is grappling with rampant corruption, unrest and conflict in the deeply impoverished but oil-rich nation, left devastated by decades of war.

PressTV – South Sudan rebel leader ‘captures key state’.