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Al Shabaab 'carefully planned' Kenya university massacre

Carl De Souza, AFP I Paramedics help a student injured during an attack by Somalia's Al-Qaeda-linked al Shabaab gunmen on a university campus in Garissa on April 2

Al Shabaab militants who killed 147 people during an attack on a university in northeastern Kenya appear to have carefully planned the massacre, specifically targeting a site where Christians prayed, a survivor said on Friday.


Strapped with explosives, masked al Shabaab gunmen stormed the Garissa University College campus, some 200 km (120 miles) from the Somali border, in a pre-dawn rampage on Thursday.

One of the first areas they targeted was a lecture hall where a group of Christians had gone to pray that morning, according to survivor Helen Titus.

“They investigated our area. They knew everything,” Titus told The Associated Press at a hospital in Garissa, where she was being treated for a bullet wound to the wrist.

Other survivors described harrowing scenes in which the attackers tossed grenades and sprayed bullets at cowering students during the siege, which lasted about 15 hours.

The massacre has left many local residents outraged at the government, which they say failed to prevent the bloodshed despite warnings over the last week that an attack on a university was imminent. They accuse the authorities of not doing enough to boost security in the little-developed region.

“It’s because of laxity by the government that these things are happening. For something like this to happen when there are those rumours is unacceptable,” said Mohamed Salat, 47, a Somali Kenyan businessman.

Fears that death toll will rise

Officials said that 147 people were killed in the attack and at least 79 others were wounded, many critically. But with an uncertain number of students and staff still missing, a government source and media warned on Friday that the death toll was likely to climb.

“Yes, there is a likelihood of numbers going up,” said one government source dealing with the Garissa attack.

Kenya’s top-selling newspaper Daily Nation, citing sources, said the death toll would be significantly higher.

Outside the university gates, a throng of veiled women clung to the hope that missing people would still turn up alive.

“We are here waiting for news if we can find him, dead or alive,” said Barey Bare, 36, referring to her cousin who worked as a clerk at the university and has been missing since Thursday.

The violence will heap further pressure on President Uhuru Kenyatta, who has struggled to stop frequent militant gun and grenade attacks that have dented Kenya’s image abroad and brought the country’s vital tourism industry to its knees.

More than 400 people have been killed by al Qaeda-allied al Shabaab in the east African nation since Kenyatta took office in April 2013, including some 67 people who died in a blitz on the Westgate shopping mall in the capital Nairobi in September of that year.

Al Qaeda itself killed some 207 people when it blew up the US embassy in Nairobi in 1998, an attack which remains the single biggest loss of life in Kenya since its independence from Britain in 1963.

Al Shabaab says its recent wave of attacks are retribution for Kenya sending troops into Somalia to fight the group alongside other African Union peacekeepers.

The group, which at one point controlled most of Somalia, has lost swathes of territory in recent years but diplomats have repeatedly warned this has not diminished al Shabaab’s ability to stage guerrilla-style attacks at home and further abroad.

‘Most wanted’ bounty

Survivors of the Garissa attack spoke of merciless executions by the attackers, who stalked classrooms and dormitories hunting for non-Muslim students.

Reuben Mwavita, 21, a student, said he saw three female students kneeling in front of the gunmen, begging for mercy.

“The mistake they made was to say, ‘Jesus, please save us’, because that is when they were immediately shot,” Mwavita said.

Many students fled into the sandy scrubland, scaling barbed-wire fences and jumping off buildings, often half-naked, as they were awakened by the sound of gunfire and explosions.

“The attackers were just in the next room. I heard them ask people whether they were Christian or Muslim, then I heard gunshots and screams,” said Susan Kitoko, 24, who broke her hip when she jumped out of the first floor window of her dorm.

“I don’t know what happened to my two other roommates because I have not heard from them since then.”

Within hours of the attack, Kenya put up a 20-million shilling ($215,000) reward for the arrest of Mohamed Mohamud, a former Garissa teacher labelled “Most Wanted” in a government poster and linked by Kenyan media to two separate al Shabaab attacks in the neighbouring Mandera region last year.

The government also imposed a dusk-to-dawn (6:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m.) curfew on Garissa, Mandera and two other crime-ridden regions near the porous 700-km border with Somalia.

However, diplomats and analysts say the move effectively concedes that the government is not in control of these areas, which are widely seen to be Kenya’s soft underbelly.

As such, al Shabaab is likely to continue its strategy of attacking “low risk and high reward” soft targets in marginalized parts of the country, according to Ahmed Salim, a senior associate at Teneo Intelligence.


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