Kenya’s Interior Ministry said at least 147 students were killed in an attack led by the Somalian al-Shabaab Islamist militant group on a university in eastern Kenya.
Troops and police killed four members of the militant Islamist group and are rescuing the remaining hostages, Interior Minister Joseph Nkaissery said on television. Kenyan officials have accounted for 518 of 850 students on the campus, about 145 kilometers (90 miles) from Somalia, where the group, linked to al-Qaeda, is based.
“This is the saddest attack that has happened in the history of Kenya,” Nkaissery said.
President Uhuru Kenyatta ordered the police to speed up the recruitment of police officers to help battle the Somali-based militants after the attack Thursday. Al-Shabaab has escalated the number and deadliness of attacks since 2011 when Kenya sent troops to fight them in Somalia. The group killed 67 people in a multi-day siege of a popular mall in Nairobi, the capital, in 2013.
“My government has undertaken appropriate deployment to the affected area and is fully in charge of the situation,” Kenyatta said. “This is a moment for everyone throughout the country to be vigilant as we continue to confront and defeat our enemies.”
The militants may have chosen the university as a “soft target, an area with a big population,” Emmanuel Kisiangani, a Nairobi-based senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, said by phone.
“Al-Shabaab usually come up with attacks when they are perceived to be at their weakest point. I think they did this as part of the agenda to assert themselves,” he said.
At least 79 people were injured, the Interior Ministry and National Disaster Operation said on their Twitter accounts.
The government is offering a $220,000 reward for Mohammed Mohamud Kuno, an al-Shabaab member on a government watch list, Interior Ministry spokesman Mwenda Njoka said by phone. Police imposed a 12-hour curfew that starts Friday at 6:30 p.m. in Garissa, Mandera and Tana River counties that will last until April 16.
A student who fled, Njeri Maina, said three assailants entered the university’s main dormitory carrying assault rifles and grenades. They shouted in Arabic, then Swahili, telling everybody to lie down before they opened fire, she said by phone. Maina said she escaped through a back entrance after security forces started engaging the militants.
One suspected gunman was arrested while trying to flee the scene on Thursday, according to the Interior Ministry.
Al-Shabaab spokesman Abdul Aziz Abu Musab said his group was responsible for the attack. Speaking to Radio Andalus, a Somalia-based broadcaster that backs the insurgents, he said the militants stormed the university compound, took control and killed “many Christian enemies.”
Some students were being held captive in the university’s student accommodation while security forces and Kenyan troops exchanged gunfire with the assailants
Al-Shabaab has waged an insurgency in Somalia since 2006 in a bid to impose Islamic law. Kenya has faced bombings of bars, churches, and markets for sending troops to Somalia.
The British government on March 27 raised its travel warning for Kenya, asking its nationals to avoid non-essential trips to a wider area of the coast than its previous advisory, including the Mombasa airport. The same day the Australian government warned that militants may be planning attacks in crowded locations in Nairobi “in the near future.”