Bloody massacre at Kenya university; Al-Shabab gunmen kill at least 147

Somalia's Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Shabab group claims responsibility, says retaliation for Kenya troops fighting in Somalia

Paramedics help a student who was injured during an attack by Somalia's Al-Shabab on the Moi University campus in Garissa, Kenya, April 2, 2015.
Carl de Souza / AFP / Getty Images

Al-Shabab gunmen attacked a college campus in the town of Garissa in northeast Kenya on Thursday, killing at least 147 people in a bloody attack on students, authorities said.

Masked men burst into the Garissa University College in the early morning raid and reportedly singled out Christian students, separating them from Muslim peers before murdering them.

Hours after the assualt began, security forces stormed the campus building in a bid to rescue the remaining hostages.

After the raid, Kenya's National Disaster Operations Centre tweeted: “The operation at Garissa University College has ended, with all four terrorists killed.”

It said 147 fatalities had been confirmed in the attack. The center later added that 587 students had been evacuated, 79 with injuries. "All students have been accounted for," the Disaster Operations Centre tweeted.  

Witnesses earlier reported explosions and heavy gunfire rocking the university complex as armed men stormed the building. Ambulances were seen driving injured students to local hospitals.

Terrified students streamed out of buildings, some men shirtless, as arriving police officers took cover, witnesses said. Even as security forces cornered the gunmen in a dorm where they could be holding hostages, survivors described a harrowing scene, where people were mercilessly gunned down and bullets whistled through the air as people ran for their lives.

Al-Shabab claims attack

Somalia's Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Shabab group claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was revenge for Nairobi's troops fighting in Somalia. 

Armed members of Al-Shabab attacked the upscale Westgate mall on Sept. 21, 2013 killing 68 people and injuring 175.

Garissa University College is the only public institution of higher learning in the region. (Google Maps)
Google maps

“Kenya is at war with Somalia … our people are still there, they are fighting and their mission is to kill those who are against the Shabab,” group spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage told AFP news agency by telephone.

He told Reuters that the group targeted Christians.

“We sorted people out and released the Muslims,” he said.

When the attack started around 5:30 a.m., morning prayers were underway at the university mosque, where students were not attacked, a witness told The Associated Press.

The gunmen opened fire at the university, triggering a “fierce shootout” with police guarding student dorms, Kenya's National Police Service said in a written statement.

Police spokesperson Zipporah Mboroki said: “The attackers shot the guards at the entrance of the university. Police officers responded but the attackers managed to get into the [university] hostel.”

Al-Shabab has carried out several attacks in Garissa and across Kenya in the past. The group has vowed to punish Kenya for sending troops into Somalia alongside African Union peacekeepers to fight the group.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Farah Maalim, a former Kenyan Deputy Parliamentary Speaker, described the attack on the university as “scary.”

“The university has no less than 1,000 students. The damage can be colossal, but no one seems to know at this point,” Maalim said.

“You cannot fight these isolated attacks with conventional military tactics, which still seems to be the only response.”

“There is a possible intelligence lapse here, and that is no excuse [because] we have state of the art of intelligence gathering and plans can be intercepted.”

Maalim said Al-Shabab was losing the war it has been waging on Somalia and Kenya. 

“They are on the death bed. They need to be in the limelight. That is why they are going for these soft targets,” he said. 

Garissa University College, the only public institution of higher learning in the region, opened its doors in 2011, according to the institution's website.

The institution is situated in Garissa County in the northeastern region of Kenya, about 235 miles from Nairobi, the capital.

‘Nobody was screaming’

Collins Wetangula, the vice chairman of the student union, said he was preparing to take a shower when he heard gunshots coming from Tana dorm, which hosts both men and women, 150 meters away. The campus has six dorms and at least 887 students, he told The Associated Press.

He said that when he heard the gunshots he locked himself and three roommates in their room.

“All I could hear were footsteps and gunshots. Nobody was screaming because they thought this would lead the gunmen to know where they ” he said.  "The gunmen were saying ‘Sisi ni Al-Shabab (Swahili for ‘We are al-Shabab’),” Wetangula said.

When the gunmen arrived at his dormitory he could hear them opening doors and asking if the people who had hidden inside whether they were Muslims or Christians.

“If you were a Christian you were shot on the spot,” he said. “With each blast of the gun I thought I was going to die.”

The gunmen started to shoot rapidly and it was as if there was an exchange of fire, he said.

“The next thing, we saw people in military uniform through the window of the back of our rooms who identified themselves as the Kenyan military,” Wetangula said. The soldiers took him and around 20 others to safety.

Augustine Alanga, a 21-year-old student, described a panicked scene as gunshots rang out outside their dormitory in the pre-dawn hours.

The shooting became more intense almost immediately, he told AP by phone. The heavy gunfire forced some students to stay indoors as others fled with gunmen firing at them.

He said he saw at least five heavily armed, masked gunmen.

“I am just now recovering from the pain as I injured myself while trying to escape. I was running barefoot,” said Alanga, who was one of scores of students who managed to escape through barbed wire fencing.

Setback for tourism

The attack was a setback in a drive by President Uhuru Kenyatta to persuade foreigners the country is safe to visit.

On Wednesday, he urged Kenyans abroad to help woo tourists back despite the wave of militant violence, criticizing a warning from Australia of a possible attack in Nairobi and an advisory from Britain urging its citizens to avoid most coastal resorts.

Grace Kai, a student at the Garissa Teachers Training College near the university, said there had been warnings that an attack in the town could be imminent.

“Some strangers had been spotted in Garissa town and were suspected to be terrorists,” she told Reuters.

“Then on Monday our college principal told us … that strangers had been spotted in our college. … On Tuesday we were released to go home, and our college closed, but the campus remained in session, and now they have been attacked.”

Al Jazeera with wire services

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