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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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Islamists kill 50 in Kenya, some during World Cup screening

Al-Shabaab militants on Kenya (archive)

Al-Shabaab militants on Kenya (archive)

(Reuters) – Somali-linked Islamists have killed at least 50 people in a Kenyan coastal town, executing men in front of their families and killing others who had gathered to watch World Cup soccer on television.

The al Shabaab group said on Monday that its commandos launched Sunday night’s strike on Mpeketoni because Kenya had sent its forces to Somalia and accused Nairobi of assassinating Muslim scholars, a charge Kenyan officials have denied.

“Kenya is now officially a war zone and as such any tourists visiting the country do so at their own peril,” it said, after staging the biggest assault since its gunmen attacked Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall in September, leaving 67 dead.

Mpeketoni, where shells of buildings smoldered and pools of blood congealed on the streets, is not normally a stopover for foreign visitors on Kenya’s popular coast, but the attack is likely to hurt further an already struggling tourist industry.

Western nations have in recent weeks tightened their warnings about travel to Kenya, which has been hit by a spate of recent gun attacks and bombings in Nairobi and around the main port of Mombasa, though none have been as serious as Sunday’s.

“The attackers were so many and were all armed with guns. They entered the video hall where we were watching a World Cup match and shot indiscriminately at us,” Meshack Kimani told Reuters, adding about 10 people were killed there.

“They targeted only men but I was lucky. I escaped by hiding behind the door,” he said.

FAMILIES WATCH MEN KILLED

Other witnesses said those gathering for the screenings fled just before the attackers arrived but were found in hiding places and then shot. Hotels, a bank and a police station were also attacked, leaving a trail of dead across the town.

“The wives who came to identify the bodies said the attackers forced them and their children to watch as they killed their husbands,” said Peter Kamotho, a tailor volunteering at a makeshift morgue where bodies of 48 men lay under a cover.

A Reuters witness saw several men with shots directly to the head. Kamotho said they had been shot at close range.

Muiruri Kinyanjui, the Kenya Red Cross regional director for the coastal area, said the death toll was at least 50 but could rise because many residents were still unaccounted for while others had suffered serious injuries.

Many people fled to nearby forests for safety.

Some of the wounded were taken to a hospital in Lamu, a historic Arab trading port that is a big tourist attraction about 30 km (20 miles) from Mpeketoni, which is on the coastline between Mombasa and the Somali border in the north.

Kenyan hotels say bookings have dropped sharply because of recent attacks and Western travel warnings. Some hotels on the coast say they face closure, while some hoteliers inland who offer safaris say reservations are down by 30 percent or more. Witnesses said gunmen roamed for hours into Monday morning. Issah Birido, who hid up a tree shrouded in darkness, said he heard them chanting slogans and speaking in Somali, a language many Kenyan citizens with Somali origins also speak.

WORLD CUP ALERTS

Kenya, which has blamed al Shabaab for the previous attacks, had said it would be on alert during the World Cup to ensure public showings of matches were kept safe.

Although the gunmen struck a range of sites, the assault is likely to heighten worries in other African states such as Nigeria, which is battling the Boko Haram Islamist insurgency, that venues hosting World Cup screenings could be vulnerable.

After Westgate, al Shabaab had warned of more attacks, saying it was determined to drive out Kenyan forces battling the Islamist militants in Somalia along with other African peacekeepers. Kenya has repeatedly said it would not withdraw.

The al Shabaab statement also referred to the killing in drive-by shootings of at least three high-profile Kenyan Muslim preachers, seen as sympathetic to militant Islam. Supporters of the clerics have said their deaths were extra-judicial killings.

Kenya has denied the charge. Police have not found the gunmen behind those shootings.

Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku told a news conference before traveling to the area that the security forces would find the perpetrators, fending off questions about public anger at the failure of the government to do more to secure Kenya.

In an apparent swipe at political opponents, he said the government was cautioning “political leaders … to desist from destructive politics and ethnic profiling that may be responsible for this heinous act”. He did not elaborate.