NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) – Islamic extremists killed 36 non-Muslim quarry workers in northern Kenya early Tuesday, prompting Kenya’s president to announce a security shakeup, firing his interior minister and accepting the resignation of the national police chief.
President Uhuru Kenyatta named an opposition politician and retired army general, Joseph Nkaissery, as the new interior minister, in charge of security.
“I know we are all under a lot of pressure, but I appeal to each one of us: This is not a time to be cowed by the enemy. I also call on all leaders to stand together and confront this enemy. This is a war we must win,” Kenyatta said.
Police Chief David Kimaiyo said he is taking “early retirement” for personal reasons.
Public pressure had been mounting for the two officials to be replaced following a string of extremist attacks.
Early Tuesday Islamic extremists from Somalia killed 36 quarry workers in northern Kenya, targeting non-Muslims just like an attack in the same area on bus passengers 10 days earlier.
The killings happened in Mandera County near the border with Somalia and the attackers escaped. Responsibility was claimed by the militant group, al-Shabab, which has been battling for years to establish hard-line Islamic rule in Somalia.
A group of about 50 heavily armed men walked into the tented camp next to the quarry at 12:30 a.m. as the workers were sleeping and fired warning shots, said Peter Nderitu, a quarry worker.
When he heard the shooting Nderitu ran and hid in a trench from where he heard his colleagues being asked to recite the Shahada, an Islamic creed declaring oneness with God. Gunshots followed. He only rose from his hiding place two hours later when he was sure there was no more movement, he said. The bodies of his colleagues were in two rows and nearly all had been shot in the back of the head, he said.
The quarry camp is in the Koromey area on the outskirts of Mandera town.
Bodies of the 36 were flown to Nairobi, where relatives gathered at the city morgue to identify their kin.
Al-Shabab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage said the latest attack was a response to Kenya’s troop presence in Somalia and alleged atrocities committed by the Kenyan army there, such as a recent airstrike. Al-Shabab claimed the airstrike killed innocent people and destroyed their property. The Kenyan government said the airstrike was in response to a Nov. 22 al-Shabab attack on bus passengers in Mandera County that left 28 people dead.
In that attack, the non-Muslims were also separated from other passengers and shot dead if they could not recite the Shahada.
Reacting to the bus attack, about 100 non-Muslims last week sought refuge at the Mandera army base, demanding that the government evacuate them.
Kenyatta’s chief of staff, Joseph Kinyua, attempted to persuade non-Muslims from leaving Mandera County, whose population is predominantly Kenyan Muslims of Somali origin.
Al-Shabab has vowed to attack Kenya for sending its troops into Somalia to fight the rebels. The Kenyan military was deployed to Somalia in October 2011. Since then Kenya has experienced a series of explosive and gun attacks blamed on the militants, including last year’s attack on Nairobi’s upscale Westgate shopping mall.
“These terrorists want to create chaos in the country by creating divisions between Muslims and Christians,” said Mandera County Sen. Billow Kerrow.
“I am worried that this may get out of hand. They can be so emboldened because they are meeting no resistance and decide to take over a town,” Kerrow said.
He said despite the central government’s claims that it has increased the police and army presence in the county, there is a lack coordination and commitment to tackle insecurity in Mandera.
After the bus attack, Kenyatta was criticized for not cutting short a four-day official trip to Abu Dhabi. Public anger increased after pictures emerged on social media appearing to show Kenyatta in a selfie at a social event and reports from media in the United Arab Emirates that he was attending Formula 1 championships instead of addressing the security crisis at home.
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(Photo: REUTERS /STRINGER /LANDOV)