Nairobi — Residents in Kenya's Lamu and Tana River counties are fleeing their homes after renewed attacks at the weekend left at least 21 dead, homes and businesses burned, and many wondering how the security forces could be caught flat-footed again.
Similar to attacks last month in Mpeketoni and nearby villages, a group of about 40-50 heavily armed men attacked the town of Hindi, Lamu County, on Saturday (June 5th) at around 11pm, before heading by boat to Gamba town in Tana River County.
Hindi is located about 15 kilometres from Mpeketoni, while Gamba is about 70 kilometres from the town, which was the epicentre of attacks June 15th and 16th that left 65 people dead. Also on June 24th, assailants killed at least 11 people in the Lamu county village of Witu.
There is still confusion over who is responsible for the attacks, with al-Shabaab claiming responsibility and the Kenyan government saying investigations are "ongoing".
Kenyan police said the latest attacks left 21 people dead, while the Kenyan Red Cross said it had confirmed 22 deaths. For its part, al-Shabaab claimed to have killed at least 43 people.
"The mujahedeen carried out well planned attacks in Kenya where God made the enemy suffer a big loss," said al-Shabaab spokesman Ali Mohamud Rage, adding that the attack was in response to Kenya's continued military presence in Somalia and the killing of Muslim clerics in Mombasa.
"We cannot authoritatively conclude whether it is al-Shabaab who were involved, Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) or local criminals," Lamu County Commissioner Miiri Njenga told Sabahi. "Investigations are ongoing."
"People we have interviewed say they were a group of about 40-50 attackers," he said. "They shot and killed a police officer manning the desk at Gamba police station in Lamu before they freed suspects."
Njenga confirmed that all those killed in the attacks were male, following a pattern of killing similar to that in Mpeketoni. He said government offices, a church and a truck were torched.
'Faceless killers striking at will'
Rose Ngilani, a 55-year-old grocery store owner in Hindi, recounted how four attackers approached her grass-thatched house Saturday night and asked her where her husband was, to which she replied that she is a widow.
After verifying she was alone, the attackers lit fire to the thatches and shouted that Kenya would continue to suffer until it withdraws from Somalia, Ngilani said.
"No one is safe in Lamu," she told Sabahi. "It appears these faceless killers are striking at will and leaving a trail of deaths and destruction of property wherever they strike".
Ngilani questioned how all of the attackers have been able to strike and then leave without being apprehended or killed.
Ngilani's neighbour, Rhoda Karoki, 42, a fish seller, said she had expected all of Lamu County to be flooded with security agents searching for the killers who carried out last month's massacre.
"How can heavily armed men in military fatigues [with] automatic guns and machetes unleash terror in two different counties and not even one is killed or arrested?" she asked.
Karoki says she fears the country is headed for dangerous times, wondering how officers at the Gamba police station were so easily overpowered.
"Some prisoners were also released but for security reasons we cannot reveal their identities, the nature of their crimes or numbers," said Lamu County police commander Ephantus Kiura about the Gamba Police Station, where a policeman and eight civilians were killed.
Kiura said police were also investigating the authenticity of Swahili and English messages scrawled on a chalkboard found at the police station.
The messages were allegedly written by the attackers and said in part, "MRC - you are sleeping. Muslims, your land is being grabbed. Wake up and fight." It also included sentiments in favour of opposition leader Raila Odinga and said "Uhuru down".
For her part, Deputy Inspector General of Police Grace Kaindi told reporters Sunday that the attack was carried out by MRC members who had split into two groups. She refused, however, to answer questions on whether al-Shabaab could have involved in the attacks.
Abdul Kassim, the Lamu County assembly member representing Hindi, said it is unacceptable that his town was under siege for almost three hours despite being only 15 kilometres away from Nyangoro General Police Service Unit camp.
"Why did it not respond to the distress calls?" he said. "This camp exists to handle insecurity in this volatile region. If it is not effective, then its operations should be reviewed. Otherwise, by its presence, it is giving residents false sense of security."
Tensions high as residents flee:
George Njiraini, 35, a carpenter, said tensions are high in Gamba and residents are leaving town after rumours started circulating of more attacks to come.
"The shopping centre is deserted apart from heavy presence of police officers who were sent here on Sunday morning," he told Sabahi, adding that he is sceptical the beefed up police presence will continue for long.
"I am leaving [Monday] to stay with my brother's family in Likoni, Mombasa," he said. "I will monitor the situation in Lamu and only return home once I am assured that all attackers have been apprehended."
Lydia Moraa, 57, a shop owner in Hindi, said the manner in which attackers are overrunning police stations in a matter of minutes suggests they had carried out prior reconnaissance and that police have not taken any additional security measures after the Mpeketoni attacks.
"What is the purpose of staying here?" she said. "These attacks have not only weakened economic [activity] here but also caused public despondency."
Moraa also urged the government to be careful when apportioning blame to avoid inflaming tensions.
"When they say it is MRC without providing any concrete evidence or arresting its members, while on the other hand al-Shabaab claims responsibility, it leaves people confused and guessing," she told Sabahi.
Lamu economy in decline:
John Mwaka, 40, a fisherman in Lamu East, said since the attacks started last month, he has been afraid for his security and only fishes during the day.
"I used to catch almost 500 kilograms of fish [every night] which I sold to local hotels and small-scale fishmongers, but most hotels are now closed or operating at below average and fishmongers are disinterested with fish since they have no place to sell them," he said.
The Lamu economy is in danger of collapse unless the government improves the security situation right away, he said, adding that security personnel have made life harder by imposing curfews.
"The fishing industry here employed many local people as fish cleaners, packagers or distributors," Mwaka said. "Insecurity has wiped away that golden opportunity."
Agatha Kadzo, 26, a maid in Lamu's Kiwayu island, has been out of work since May.
"There are no foreign tourists coming here anymore," she said. "Without that, there are no jobs for us."