Gunmen have attacked a university campus in Kenya on Thursday, killing 147 people.
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Kenya’s interior minister, Joseph Nkaissery, said that 147 people had been killed, including four attackers. He contended that the deadly siege at the university had ended, and that security forces were carefully sweeping the campus for any remaining threats.
Kenyan security forces surrounded the campus of Garissa University College and clashed with the gunmen throughout the day, eventually cornering them in one dormitory, officials said.
Abdikadir Sugow, the spokesman for the Garissa county government, said the gunmen were seen wearing “combat gear,” including what appeared to be “either bulletproof vests or suicide bomb vests.”
The Shabab, an extremist group based in Somalia and affiliated with Al Qaeda, issued a statement through a radio station it controls claiming responsibility for the attack.
It said its fighters attacked the university early Thursday morning, began separating Muslims from non-Muslims and started an “operation against the infidels.”
In an audio message released on Thursday, a Shabab spokesman, Ali Mohamoud Raghe, said the attack had been carried out because “the Christian government of Kenya has invaded our country,” a reference to the Kenyan military’s 2011 incursion into Somalia to oust the Shabab from its strongholds.
He said the university had been targeted because it was educating many Christian students in “a Muslim land under colony,” a reference to the large Somali population in a part of Kenya that Somalia once tried to claim. He called the university part of Kenya’s “plan to spread their Christianity and infidelity.”
The siege was a devastating blow in a country that has long been a front-line state in the battle with Islamist extremism. In 2013, the Shabab mounted an attack on a Nairobi shopping mall that turned into a four-day ordeal, shaking Kenya’s prized sense of stability and leaving 67 people dead.
The Kenyan authorities offered a bounty of 20 million Kenyan shillings (about $215,000) on Thursday for information leading to the capture of Mohammed Mohamud, who they said was the “most wanted” suspect in connection with the university attack. They said Mr. Mohamud was also known by the names Dulyadin and Gamadhere.
President Uhuru Kenyatta issued a statement extending condolences to the families of victims and saying that he and his government “continue to pray for the quick recovery of the injured, and the safe rescue of those held hostage.”
The disaster operations center said that four critically wounded people had been airlifted to Nairobi, the capital, for treatment.
Mr. Sugow, the county spokesman, said the college “hosts students from all over Kenya, of different religious and ethnic backgrounds.”
Augustine Alanga, 21, an economics student at the college, said he had been asleep in his dormitory when the shooting began. Startled and afraid, he said, he bolted from his room without stopping to put on his shoes, and got cuts on his feet as he sprinted barefoot across the campus and into a nearby forest.
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“When I looked back, I saw them,” Mr. Alanga recalled. “There were five or six of them. They were masked. And they were shooting live rounds.”
The attack began about 5:30 a.m., when the gunmen forced their way onto the campus by firing at guards at the main gate, according to a statement issued by the office of the inspector general of the National Police Service in Nairobi.
“Police officers who were at the time guarding the students’ hostels heard the gunshots and responded swiftly, and engaged the gunmen in a fierce shootout; however, the attackers retreated and gained entry into the hostels,” the statement said. “Security agencies arrived and are currently engaged in an elaborate process of flushing out the gunmen.”
The police surrounded and sealed off the campus, and by 11 a.m., three of the college’s four student dormitories had been evacuated, while “the attackers have been cornered in one hostel,” the Interior Ministry said on Twitter.
Joseph Boinet, the chief of the Kenyan police, ordered a curfew of 6:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. in four counties in northeastern Kenya, including Garissa County, to remain in effect for two weeks. The town of Garissa is about 90 miles from the Somali border.
The military later acknowledged that the invasion had been planned well in advance, part of an effort to protect Kenya’s borders from the violence in Somalia and to safeguard Kenya’s economic interests, including a huge port to be built just 60 miles south of Somalia.
The incursion managed to dislodge the Shabab from vital positions, but it raised fears of reprisals. The Shabab immediately vowed to retaliate, and many Kenyans worried that the military campaign would incite terrorism inside Kenya — a fear that seemed to culminate in the attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, a gleaming symbol of Kenya’s modernity, wealth and relative peace.
The Shabab began trying to affiliate with Al Qaeda as early as 2009, but Osama bin Laden kept them at arm’s length when he was alive, and internal documents have revealed that he was uneasy about the group’s murderous tactics, including the indiscriminate killing of Muslim civilians. The Shabab did not become an official branch of Al Qaeda until February 2012, almost a year after Bin Laden’s death.
Since then, the group has maintained that it tries to minimize Muslim casualties, though Muslims continue to be targets in many of their operations. During the shopping mall attack, gunmen separated Muslim from non-Muslim civilians by asking religious trivia questions (“What is the name of the Prophet’s mother?” “What is the name of his first wife?”). The “nonbelievers” were killed on the spot.
In a Shabab document that was found in Mali by The Associated Press, the group tried to justify its tactics, saying that “all Muslims must stay far away from the enemy and their installations so as not to become human shields for them” and that there was “no excuse for those who live or mingle with the enemies.”
In 2014, the Shabab attacked a church in the coastal town of Likoni, and carried out two attacks on buses in the northeastern county of Madera. In those attacks, too, riders were separated according to religion, and a total of 64 were killed, including a group of teachers returning home from vacation.
The group has actively recruited and radicalized young people in Kenya, especially in economically depressed areas along the Indian Ocean coast where tourism, a vital industry for the country, has suffered badly because of terrorist activity.
Recent security warnings have emphasized a continued risk of attack by the Shabab. In March, the embassies of Australia, the United States and Britain issued security alerts about possible terrorist attacks.
“Potential targets for attacks could include hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, shopping malls, diplomatic missions, transportation hubs, religious institutions, government offices, or public transportation,” the United States Embassy warned after the reported death of Adan Garar, a Shabab leader, in March.