NAIROBI (Reuters/AFP) - At least 14 people were reported killed on Thursday when Islamist militant group Al-Shebab stormed a university campus near Kenya’s border with Somalia, taking an unknown number of Christian students hostage and battling security forces over several hours.
Police and soldiers surrounded and sealed off Garissa University College and were attempting to flush out the gunmen, the head of Kenya’s police force, Joseph Boinet, said.
Al-Shebab, which has links to Al-Qaeda and a track record of raids on Kenyan soil, claimed responsibility for the pre-dawn attack, in which scores were wounded. The group was also responsible for a deadly attack in 2013 on the upscale Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi.
Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, the group’s military operations spokesman, said the militants were holding many Christian hostages inside.
“We sorted people out and released the Muslims,” he told Reuters. “Fighting still goes on inside the college.”
“The attackers shot indiscriminately while inside the university compound,” Boinet said in a statement, adding police had been guarding the university’s four hostels at the time.
At least 14 people had been killed, a policeman at the scene said, while the Red Cross said 50 students had been freed. Others managed to escape the compound unaided.
A witness, Ms Milka Ndung'u, told CNN affiliate NTV that gunshots went off "like fireworks" at the time of the 5am morning prayers. She said she escaped to a field with others, and fled farther after the gunshots came closer.
Mr Augustine Alanga, a student, told CNN the gunfire woke him up, and said students running around seeking shelter in the dorms.
Interior Minister Joseph Nkaissery said 280 out of 815 students at the university have been accounted for, according to Kenya’s national disaster agency.
“280 of 815 students have been accounted for. Efforts are under way to track the others – CS Nkaissery #GarissaAttack,”the Kenya National Disaster Operation Centre said on its official Twitter feed, citing Nkaissery.
The disaster body did not say how many students remain trapped in the campus.
Sixty-five people were wounded, the country’s National Disaster Operation Centre said on its Twitter feed. Four had been airlifted to Nairobi for treatment.
“We have 49 casualties so far, all with bullet and (shrapnel) wounds,” said a doctor at Garissa hospital.
CHRISTIANS AND MUSLIMS
Al-Shebab, which seeks to impose its own harsh variant of syariah law, had separated Muslims from Christians in some of its previous raids in Kenya, notably late last year in attacks on a bus and at a quarry.
Its repeated raids, together with attacks on churches by home-grown Islamist groups, have in recent years strained the historically cordial relations between Kenya’s Muslim and Christian communities.
Thursday’s attack also marked a setback in a drive by President Uhuru Kenyatta to persuade foreigners the country is safe to visit. On Wednesday, he urged Kenyans abroad to help woo tourists back despite the wave of militant violence, criticising a warning from Australia of a possible attack in Nairobi and an advisory from Britain urging its citizens to avoid most coastal resorts.
Kenyatta was due to address the nation about the Garissa attack later on Thursday.
Grace Kai, a student at the Garissa Teachers Training College near the university, said there had been warnings that an attack in the town could be imminent.
“Some strangers had been spotted in Garissa town and were suspected to be terrorists,” she told Reuters. “Then on Monday our college principal told us ...that strangers had been spotted in our college... On Tuesday we were released to go home, and our college closed, but the campus remained in session, and now they have been attacked.”
Al-Shebab had previously carried out attacks in Garissa, which lies around 200km from the porous Somali border. Many Kenyans living in the crime-ridden frontier regions blame the government for not doing enough to protect its citizens from the militants.