At least 48 people were killed overnight when suspected Al-Shabab militants from Somalia attacked hotels, restaurants and government offices in a Kenyan coastal town, police and the Red Cross reported Monday.
“The death toll has risen to 48,” the organization said on its Twitter feed, as local officials said security forces were still searching for victims of the attack.
“The number of bodies taken to the mortuary is 47, while one has died in hospital,” a local police officer also said.
A member of the local police was also confirmed as being among the dead.
Heavily armed gunmen stormed into the town of Mpeketoni, near the coastal island and popular tourist resort of Lamu, late on Sunday. District deputy commissioner Benson Maisori said several buildings including hotels, restaurants, banks and government offices were burned down.
“There were around 50 attackers, heavily armed in three vehicles, and they were flying the Shabab flag. They were shouting in Somali and shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ (‘God is Greatest’),” he said.
Fierce gun battles began Sunday evening and continued into the early hours of Monday morning, but by dawn, the town of Mpeketoni was reported calm.
“More bodies have been found and what we have now is 34,” a local police official said earlier in the day, signalling the toll could rise further because “the search for more bodies is still underway.”
“Our officers are still combing the area,” Kenyan police chief David Kimaiyo also told AFP.
“We suspect the involvement of Al-Shabab in this attack. We are appealing for calm as we do our best the search for the attackers. It is a very unfortunate incident.”
Kenyan troops crossed into southern Somalia in 2011 to fight the Shabab, later joining the now 22,000-strong African Union force battling the al-Qaeda-linked militants.
The Shabab vowed revenge, carrying out a string of attacks on Kenyan soil, including last September’s assault on Nairobi’s Westgate mall in which at least 67 people were killed.
‘Bodies on the road’
The town of Mpeketoni, a trading center on the main coastal road, lies on the mainland some 30 kilometers (20 miles) southwest of Lamu island, a popular tourist destination whose ancient architecture is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Cafes and bars were reportedly packed with people watching the World Cup on television when the gunmen attacked.
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-Shabab,” although there was no immediate claim of responsibility from the Islamists themselves.
Military surveillance planes were launched shortly after the attack began.
Attackers tried to storm a police post including an armory, but Maisori said officers had defended the building and fought the gunmen off.
Residents in villages surrounding the town also reporting that the gunmen attacked settlements as they pulled out after fighting in Mpeketoni.
“There are six bodies here, a man and a child in their house, four lying on the road,” said Mohammed Hassan, a local resident of Kibaoni, a small settlement some five kilometers (three miles) outside the town.
Last month one of the Shabab’s most senior commanders, Fuad Mohamed Khalaf, released radio broadcasts urging fighters to strike Kenya.
Hundreds of British tourists were also evacuated last month from beach resorts near Kenya’s port city of Mombasa following new warnings of terror attacks from Britain’s Foreign Office.
Britain this week released warnings to citizens in several East African nations — including Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda, who all have troops in Somalia — speaking of the threat of attacks at public screenings of the World Cup.
The Shebab claimed responsibility last month for killing two Kenyan soldiers in the same district as Sunday’s attack, although further north nearer to the lawless border zone with Somalia.