In an attack that smacks of the Boko Haram terror group in Northern Nigeria, heavily armed men yesterday stormed two churches in Garissa town killing 17 people including two police officers. They escaped with the policemen's guns. The dead are 11 women, five men and a child died.
Four men - all armed with guns masked in black - stormed the African Inland Church at 10:30am, shot dead the two Administration Police officers manning security at the gate before proceeding inside the church where they hurled a hand grenade at the worshippers and then proceeded to shoot indiscriminately.
Within 30 seconds, 10 people lay dead on the floor with more than a hundred injured, some critically. Seven others later succumbed to their wounds. It is estimated that there were about 150 worshippers in the church at the time of the attack. The AIC attack coincided with another at the nearby St Mary's Catholic Church that left three people seriously injured after a hand grenade was hurled at them. The two simultaneous attacks appeared to have been well coordinated.
Police Commissioner Mathew Iteere said he had sent a reinforcement to hunt for the attackers. "The Commissioner of Police condemns this attack against innocent citizens in the strongest terms possible and urges anyone with information on the attacks to provide it to the nearest police officer or government official," Iteere said in a statement sent through spokesman Erick Kiraithe.
Eyewitness Felix Kimanzi, a worshipper at the AIC, said: "I was walking towards the church, but 20 metres before reaching there, I heard gunshots rend the air," said. "I then decided to lie down. After a few seconds while still down I saw four men who were masked running towards an unknown destination."
Another witness David Mwange who was injured said: "We were deep in prayers preparing to give our offerings; we first heard a loud bang from outside which we mistook to be coming from the rooftops. We then heard gunshots and lay down. Within no time we had gunshots all over, everybody was shouting and wailing in pain." "After a minute we stood up only to find dead bodies lying on the floor with others wailing in pain with blood all over," said a visibly shaken Mwange.
More than 100 people who sustained injuries were rushed to the Garissa Provincial Hospital. Twenty five who were in a critical condition were airlifted to the Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi for specialised treatment. Addressing the press at the AIC where one of the attacks happened, Northeastern Deputy PPO Philip Ndolo - who was accompanied by the provincial criminal investigation officer Ezekiel Maritim - was reluctant to link the attack to the al Shabaab militia group.
"We don't want to speculate since it is too early. This is the worst attack we have had in the recent past, and we will make sure that we get those behind this very heinous attack," said Ndolo. "The goons were clad in balaclavas and hurled the grenades at the Catholic Church and the AIC in the town," Ndolo added.
He urged wananchi to cooperate with the police and offer any relevant information. Garissa Mayor Ismail Garat, speaking on the phone, condemned the attack terming it "an evil and ill intended act". "Let the police do thorough investigations about the incident and bring to book those responsible, we are not used to witnessing such acts in our country where people are just shot in broad daylight. We really want to know who these heartless people who did this are," the mayor said.
One of the two policemen was buried at the Garissa Cemetery yesterday, according to the Islamic rites. A similar attack occurred at the East African Pentecostal Church in Ngara, Nairobi, late last year. Five people were killed when a grenade was hurled into the church compound. Kenya has been struck by a series of blasts since it sent troops across the border in October to try and crush the al Shabaab uprising in Somalia. Nairobi and Mombasa have suffered a string of grenade attacks.
A blast hit a night club in Mombasa last Sunday, killing one man, a day after the US embassy in Nairobi warned of an imminent terror attack in the port city. Garissa is about 100km from the Dadaab refugee camp, where gunmen kidnapped four aid workers and killed a driver on Friday morning. It was the first kidnapping of foreigners in Kenya since KDF deployed troops in Somalia.Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka yesterday condemned the attacks and termed them "unfortunate, particularly having targeted places of worship". He reiterated that Kenya will not be intimidated by "such cowardly acts aimed at instilling fear and despondency among peace loving people".
"Places of worship including churches, temples and mosques should be respected. It is unfortunate that two police officers assigned at the church were shot and killed," the Vice President added. Kalonzo urged Kenyans to remain calm as the government deals with the situation, adding that the police were pursuing crucial leads aimed at arresting the suspects.