At least 26 people were killed when some 50 insurgents flying black Islamist flags swept into a Kenyan coastal town firing guns in an unprecedented attack, a local government official said on Monday.
“So far we have collected over 26 bodies and taken them to the mortuary, but we are still looking for more,” Benson Maisori, deputy commissioner for the district, told AFP.
Gun battles began Sunday evening and continued into the early hours of Monday morning, but by dawn, the town of Mpeketoni was reported calm.
The insurgents were reported to have been from Somalia’s Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab.
“There were around 50 attackers, heavily armed in three vehicles, and they were flying the Shebab flag,” Maisori added, speaking from the town, where several buildings including hotels, restaurants, banks and government offices were razed to the ground.
“They were shouting in Somali and shouting ‘Allahu Akbar'”, he added, meaning “God is great”, in Arabic.
Cafes and bars were reportedly packed with people watching the World Cup on television when the gunmen attacked.
The town of Mpeketoni, a trading centre on the main coastal road, lies on the mainland some 30 kilometres (20 miles) southwest of Lamu island, a popular tourist destination whose ancient architecture is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Kenyan army spokesman Major Emmanuel Chirchir described how the gunmen had stormed the town, overwhelming local police officers, and firing from vehicles “shooting people around in town”.
Chirchir also said the attackers were “likely to be Al-Shebab,” although there was no immediate claim of responsiblity from the Islamists themselves.
Attackers tried to storm a police post including an armoury, but Maisori said officers had defended the building and fought the gunmen off.
It was the latest in a series of attacks or bombings to hit Kenya — most usually blamed on the Shebab or their supporters — but the reported scale and nature of this attack is rare.
Kenyan troops crossed into southern Somalia in 2011 to fight the Shebab, later joining the now 22,000-strong African Union force battling the Islamists.
The Shebab vowed revenge, carrying out attacks, including one on Nairobi’s Westgate mall in September 2013 in which at least 67 people were killed.