Twenty-two people were killed in overnight attacks by gunmen on the Kenyan coast, the Kenya Red Cross said Sunday. Al-Qaeda-linked militants claimed responsibility but Kenyan officials blamed local separatists.
The Saturday night attacks left 13 dead in the town of Hindi and nine dead and one person missing in the town of Gamba, in neighbouring Lamu and Tana Delta counties, Kenya Red Cross chief Abbas Gulet said.
Al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabab militants from Somalia claimed responsibility for Saturday's attacks — just like they did for others last month that killed 65 people. Kenya police, however, said preliminary investigations pointed to a Kenyan separatist group on the coast.
The attacks come as tensions are rising over a planned protest rally Monday in Nairobi by the opposition, which wants the government to convene national talks over security issues, the increasing cost of living, corruption and the disbandment of the electoral authority. Many fear the protests could further divide the nation along tribal lines.
About 15 gunmen raided the town of Hindi and started shooting at residents, according to the Lamu county commissioner Njenga Miiri. The assailants allegedly burned several buildings, including a church, and also attacked the Gamba police station, Kenyan police chief David Kimaiyo said.
The victims in Gamba included five non-Muslim inmates killed when the gunmen attacked the police station, said a senior police officer who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to speak with the media. Three other inmates escaped with the gunmen, according to the officer.
Grace Kaindi, a deputy inspector general of police, told reporters Sunday that preliminary investigations pointed to the separatist group Mombasa Republican Council. She showed a message allegedly left by the attackers on a blackboard at a school that called on Muslims to rise up, take back their land and kick out Christians from the coast. The message also suggested the attackers support opposition leader and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga.
Kenya has witnessed a notable increase in attacks since deploying troops in Oct. 2011 to fight al-Shabab militants.
Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for a deadly attack last month on the town of Mpeketoni on the Kenyan coast and another attack the following day on a nearby village. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and the interior minister have blamed local political networks for those attacks — assertions that have been met with skepticism.
Last month, police arrested Lamu Governor Issa Timamy and charged him with murder, forceful eviction of residents and terrorism in connection to the Mpeketoni attacks.
Kenyatta's claims that the Mpeketoni attack was "politically motivated" are seen as an indirect attack on Odinga, who lost to Kenyatta in last year's vote. The accusations have stoked tension between supporters of the two politicians, raising fears of violence.
Odinga has vowed to continue with the protest despite a court order barring him and other leaders from the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy from convening the rally. The government has said 15,000 police officers will be deployed at the rally to prevent violence.