At least 48 people were killed overnight when suspected Shabaab militants attacked hotels, restaurants and government offices in Mpeketoni at the coastal town of Lamu, according to government sources, shaking the tourism industry barely weeks after a number of countries issued travel warnings.
Mwenda Njoka, the director of Communications at the Interior Ministry, confirmed today that the number of bodies retrieved is now at 48. Heavily armed gunmen stormed into the town of Mpeketoni, near the coastal island and popular tourist resort of Lamu, late on Sunday. District deputy commissioner Benson Maisori said several buildings including hotels, restaurants, banks and government offices were burned down.
“There were around 50 attackers, heavily armed in three vehicles, and they were flying the Shabaab flag. They were shouting in Somali and shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ (‘God is Greatest’),” he said. Fierce gun battles began Sunday evening and continued into the early hours of Monday morning, but by dawn, the town of Mpeketoni was reported calm.
The Kenyan Red Cross had earlier indicated that the death toll was at 34. “Our officers are still combing the area,” Kenyan police chief David Kimaiyo also told AFP. “We suspect the involvement of Al-Shabaab in this attack. We are appealing for calm as we do our best the search for the attackers. It is a very unfortunate incident.”
The town of Mpeketoni, a trading centre on the main coastal road, 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. Cafes and bars were reportedly packed with people watching the World Cup on television when the gunmen attacked. Kenyan army spokesman Major Emmanuel Chirchir described how the gunmen had stormed the town, overwhelming local police officers, and firing from vehicles “shooting people around in town.”
Chirchir also said the attackers were “likely to be Al-Shabaab,” although there was no immediate claim of responsibility from the Islamists themselves. Military surveillance planes were launched shortly after the attack began. Attackers tried to storm a police post including an armoury, but Maisori said officers had defended the building and fought the gunmen off. Residents in villages surrounding the town also reporting that the gunmen attacked settlements as they pulled out after fighting in Mpeketoni.
“There are six bodies here, a man and a child in their house, four lying on the road,” said Mohammed Hassan, a local resident of Kibaoni, a small settlement some five kilometres (three miles) outside the town. Last month one of the Shabaab’s most senior commanders, Fuad Mohamed Khalaf, released radio broadcasts urging fighters to strike Kenya.
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. The Shabaab claimed responsibility 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.