MOMBASA (AFP) - Gunmen in Kenya attacked a busy coastal town late on Sunday, opening fire from two minibuses and setting two hotels on fire, officials said, adding the attackers were suspected Islamist insurgents.
There was no immediate confirmation of casualties, but residents said the attack lasted for hours.
Kenyan army spokesman Major Emmanuel Chirchir said the gunmen entered the western town of Mpeketoni, a trading centre on the main coastal road, and started “shooting people around in town”.
The “assailants (are) likely to be Al-Shebab,” Chirchir said, referring to Somalia’s Al-Qaeda-linked insurgents.
“Military surveillance planes are currently airborne to help police operations,” Kenya’s National Disaster Operation Centre said.
The town lies on the mainland some 30 kilometres (20 miles) southwest of Lamu island, a popular tourist destination whose ancient architecture is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The shooting began around 8pm local time (1700 GMT), with gunshots reported up to four hours later.
Two hotels, local boarding houses in the town, were “attacked and set on fire,” the disaster centre added.
A police station and a bank were also reportedly attacked, according to residents, although officials could not confirm the extent of the fighting.
“Some buildings are on fire and we are hearing gunshots,” resident Julius Kimotho told AFP. Benson Maisori, a senior civil servant, said four hours after attack began that “fighting is going on”.
Cafes and bars were reported to have been busy with people watching the World Cup on television.
Armed bandits also operate in the area, but army sources said that the number of gunmen involved and the apparently well planned operation pointed to the Shebab.
The Shebab claimed responsiblity last month for killing two Kenyan soldiers in the same district as Sunday’s attack, although further north nearer to the lawless border zone with Somalia.
No group immediately claimed responsibility, but it was the latest in a series of attacks or bombings to hit Kenya. The attacks are usually blamed on the Shebab or their supporters in Kenya.
Kenyan troops crossed into southern Somalia in 2011 to fight the Shebab, later joining the now 22,000-strong African Union force battling the Islamists.
The Shebab vowed revenge, carrying out attacks, including one on Nairobi’s Westgate mall in September 2013 in which at least 67 people were killed.
Last month one of the Shebab’s most senior commanders, Fuad Mohamed Khalaf, released radio broadcasts urging fighters to rise up against Nairobi.
Hundreds of British tourists were also evacuated last month from beach resorts near Kenya’s port city of Mombasa following new 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 – speaking of the threat of attacks at public screenings of the World Cup.