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Kenya's coast tense, divided amid continued massacre

19 July 2014, 09:50

Nairobi - More than a month after attackers stormed into a Kenyan town and executed dozens of residents, lingering uncertainty over exactly who was responsible has left the coastal region nervous and divided.

The Shebab, Somalia's al-Qaeda-linked insurgents, were quick to claim responsibility for the string of gruesome massacres near the tourist island of Lamu, saying the 87 murdered by knives and gunfire were retaliation for Kenya's military presence in their country.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, however, insisted the Shebab had nothing to do with it and instead blamed "local political networks" and ethnic hatred.

The differing scenarios have only served to underscore the wide range and potentially explosive array of challenges faced by Kenya: an external Islamist threat, homegrown terrorism, religious, ethnic and tribal tensions, and bitter, long-running land disputes.

"People here still live in fear and others have fled," said Anne Gathigi, a 38-year-old mother of five whose husband was killed when the attackers stormed into their house in June.

According to witnesses and survivors of the assault, the gunmen were spoke several languages, including Somali, and carried Shebab flags. They also deliberately singled out non-Muslims.

The attackers appeared to target the mainland close to Lamu island because it is home to Christian settlements in the Muslim-majority coastal region.

Towns such as Mpeketoni, the scene of the first killings, were settled decades ago by the Kikuyu, the same ethnic community as President Kenyatta.

Foreign intelligence sources say all the evidence points to some Shebab involvement.

"For us it's clear the Shebab were involved in some capacity, through manpower, planning and logistics, and are working with local sympathisers," a Western diplomatic source who sought anonymity told AFP.

"This is actually more worrying than if it was just a 100 percent Shebab operation. It shows they have expanded their franchise, that the threat has morphed into something new," he said.

The usual suspects?

Among those arrested in the wake of the attacks were alleged separatists from the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), a group that campaigns for independence of the coastal region.

Lamu's governor, an opposition politician, was also arrested and is currently under investigation. He has protested that the arrests were carried out with intimidation in mind, not evidence.

Hussein Khalid, executive director of HAKI Africa, a Kenyan Coast-based civil rights group, said the attacks may have in part been linked to age-old land disputes, something he said were a ticking time bomb.

"The land issue in Lamu has been an issue waiting to explode," he said, explaining that most coastal communities felt that land distribution after Kenya's independence 50 years ago was done unfairly.

"The people who were settled here from upcountry were issued with title deeds, yet the local people who have lived here even before Kenya's independence have not been issued with any allotment letters, let alone title deeds," he said, referring to members of the Bajuni, Swahili and Boni communities.

"There's also the issue of inter-religious tensions, where both the Christians and Muslims have always treated each other with suspicion," he added, saying he believed Shebab were behind the attacks but "taking advantage" of Kenya's internal problems.

Also in the spotlight are Kenya's security services, with police widely viewed as corrupt and the army already suffering from a poor public image after last year's Shebab attack on the Westgate shopping centre -- after which soldiers were filmed by security cameras apparently looting the mall.

"There's a lack of operational capacity by the police to contain the attackers since police are not trained in guerilla warfare, as well as lack of logistical back up to traverse in the forest hunting for the attackers," said a Kenyan security analyst, who asked not to be named.

"The other problem is that the police officers are not able to get information from the public because the public do not trust them -- they fear harassment once they have offered information," he said.

Diplomatic relations sour

Even on Lamu island -- a Unesco-listed World Heritage Site and once a destination for the rich and famous -- the situation appears to be far from under control.

"There has been growing tensions, especially after leaflets with threatening messages were circulated in the area," said Shakila Abdalla, the local female member of parliament, referring to threats that certain communities, mostly Kikuyus and other upcountry ethnic groups, should leave the coastal area.

She said most schools and hospitals in the county have been closed following the attacks.

"Even teachers and doctors have fled fearing for their lives," she said.

Another Western diplomat said relations between the Kenyan government and western embassies have hit "a new low-point" after several governments warned tourists to steer clear of the coast.

"The Kenyan authorities seem to be more upset with us for issuing travel warnings as they are with the Shebab for carrying out attacks," he said.

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