The death toll from the overnight attack on Mpeketoni has been confirmed at 48 as Kenya’s Internal Security minister promised a swift response and warned against “destructive politics”.
“The red line has been crossed,” Cabinet Secretary Joseph ole Lenku said as he prepared to travel to the coastal town to lead the security response. He made repeated references to incitement by unnamed local politicians even as he admitted the identity of the attackers and the motive for the attack were unknown.
"Whether it is linked to politics or not is yet to be verified, but we have not ruled it out. The Government assures of commitment to dealing with political incitement."
Meanwhile, the National Disaster Operation Centre separately claimed Al Shabaab were behind the attacks and reported that 76 injured people -- 43 men and 33 women -- had been evacuated from the coastal town.
Ole Lenku said the Sunday night attack began at 9pm and involved an unknown number of gunmen. Police and Kenya Red Cross sources had earlier estimated two dozen or more men.
The attackers targeted a video hall where football fans were watching a World Cup match, two hotels frequented by locals, three bank branches (Kenya Commercial Bank, Equity and Cooperative Bank) and a police station. They were armed with guns and at least one explosive device and set fire to several buildings. They then moved to a residential area and continued the killings. Police said the gunmen could have been Islamist militants or criminals.
The minister added President Uhuru Kenyatta has cancelled all his travel plans and would remain in Nairobi to manage the Government’s response to the crisis. The president, he added, had directed him to travel to Mpeketoni to lead security operations there. Ole Lenku did not provide a number of casualties or indicate how many security officers were among the dead.
There have been reports that distress calls from Mpeketoni were not answered until 1am, four hours after the attack begun. Ole Lenku did not address these reports either, only noting that the “bandits fled after an exchange of fire” with security forces. He conveyed his condolences to the families of those attacked and pledged to punish the perpetrators.
The assault was the latest in a string of gun and bomb attacks that have hurt Kenya's vital tourist business and which have been blamed on Somalia's Al Shabaab militant group. Western nations have issued travel warnings in the wake of previous assaults.
Ole Lenku has come under criticism over the Government’s handling of recent terror attacks, including the assault on Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall in September last year that claimed 67 lives. That raid was claimed by Al Shabaab, which said it want to force Kenya to withdraw troops from Somalia. Kenya has said it won't.
"More bodies have been recovered and right now we are talking about 48 dead persons," Leonard Omollo, Lamu County police commander, said on telephone. "We may not tell immediately whether the attacks were done by Al Shabaab, the MRC (Mombasa Republican Council) or just mere criminals."
The MRC is an illegal movement that wants the coastal region to secede. It has not recently been linked to attacks of this scale. Since the Westgate attack, Al Shabaab have promised to strike again.
The Kenya Red Cross said some of the casualties had been evacuated to a hospital in Lamu, a popular tourist destination that lies about 30 kilometres away. It is situated along the long coastline that runs north from Mombasa port to Somalia.
Those killed include a policeman who worked as a driver for a police chief in the towns, said David Kimaiyo, the inspector general of Kenya's police. Many Mpeketoni residents had fled from the attack into nearby forests, he said.
"We have not arrested anybody in connection with the attack so far," Kimaiyo said.
A Reuters television reporter in the town saw at least six bodies strewn on roads inside the town. At least ten burnt-out vehicles were also seen in the area and one bank branch was gutted in the attack, the reporter said.
Residents said there were at least 30 attackers who used two vehicles in the raid. Mpeketoni is about 130 kilometres, or more than three hours' drive along poor roads, from the border with Somalia, where Kenya forces have joined an African peacekeeping force fighting Al Shabaab militants.