A total of 147 students were killed and 79 injured after Al-Shabaab terrorists shot their way into Garissa University College at dawn on Thursday and opened fire on them.
By nine last evening, the operation was declared officially over by the Internal Security CS Joseph Nkaissery. The attackers detonated suicide vests injuring some of the security forces. Of the 815 students in the college, 500 were rescued, according to the government and the rest — 166 — were not properly accounted for earlier. Some were presumed to have been taken hostage in a hostel on the campus.
The hostel housed 360 students, both male and female, according to the government, which also said it had killed four terrorists.
Daily Nation sources said the number of people killed was higher than the official tally, perhaps as high as double.
There was still shooting last night, even though the government had said the siege was over. No rescue workers were allowed into the campus by the military.
The government had said it was merely “mopping up” just in case any of the attackers were still on the campus.
One suspect, described as a terrorist by the government, was reportedly arrested while leaving the college.
In response to the attack, the government slapped a dawn to dusk curfew on four counties bordering Somalia — Mandera, Wajir, Garissa and Tana River — and ordered residents to remain indoors between 6.30pm and 6.30am.
In an attack similar to, but worse than the 2013 one at Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall, five attackers gained entry into the university, a constituent college of Eldoret’s Moi University, after killing guards at the main gate.
They found some of the students inside lecture halls working on assignments while others were in the halls of residence.
Security services appeared to have some information that an attack on an institution of higher learning was in the offing and appear to have warned institutions to be careful.
The University of Nairobi, for example, on March 25, warned its students that it had received intelligence information that terrorists were planning an attack on a university and asked them to be vigilant.
Just like in the Westgate atrocity, the terrorists were armed with guns and grenades and gained entry by killing the officers at the gate and confronting others inside.
The college is located close to an army barracks.
And just like in Westgate, there was no quick resolution to the siege, with the Al-Shabaab believed to have taken some students hostage. Explosions and gunshots could be heard from inside the college late in the afternoon, eight hours after the attack began.
Ordinarily, Al-Shabaab do not take hostages. After storming their target, they kill as many of their defenceless victims as they can, then barricade themselves in a part of the building to draw the responding force into a fight and inflict more casualties and draw out the conflict so as to milk it for publicity.
Yesterday, it was reported that they had stationed snipers on rooftops to slow down the security forces deployed against them.
President Kenyatta spoke to the Nation in a televised broadcast and said the attackers had taken hostages, adding that full details would be provided by the Interior ministry.
“I am saddened to inform the nation that early today, terrorists attacked Garissa University College, killed and wounded several people and have taken others hostage. On behalf of my government, I extend condolences to the families of those who have perished in this attack. We continue to pray for the quick recovery of the injured, and the safe rescue of those held hostage,” said the President.
Earlier, Inspector-General of Police Joseph Boinnet said the terrorists had taken positions in the students’ hostels.
“The attackers forced their way into the university by shooting at the guards who were manning the main gate. The attackers shot indiscriminately once inside the compound. Police officers who were at the time guarding the university hostels heard the gunshots and responded swiftly and engaged the gunmen in a fierce shootout. However, the attackers retreated and gained entry into the hostels,” he said.
Mr Boinnet added: “The officers summoned for reinforcement immediately and a joint force composed of police and other security agencies arrived and are currently engaged in an elaborate process of flushing out the gunmen from the hostels.”
ONE TERRORIST ARRESTED
The IG and Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Nkaissery landed in Garissa aboard a helicopter about three hours after the raid started. The CS said one of the terrorists was arrested as he attempted to flee from the college.
A spokesman for Al-Shabaab told AFP news agency that the group was behind the assault on the university and had taken non-Muslims hostage.
“When our men arrived, they released the Muslims. We are holding others hostage,” Al-Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage told AFP, without giving numbers.
Witnesses said the terrorists announced their raid with loud explosions, possibly by throwing grenades, followed by continuous gunfire.
In Nairobi and Mombasa, there was increased police patrols on the streets and estates.
In Eastleigh and South “C” estates in Nairobi, as well as the city centre, there was an unusually high presence of officers.
The attack came just days after the United Kingdom issued travel advisories, warning its citizens against travelling to Kenya because of security threats.
It listed Garissa County, Eastleigh in Nairobi and the 60-kilometre stretch from the Somali border in northern Kenya, as areas that one would face security risks.
The government said the attack was masterminded by Mohamed Kuno, a Kenyan and a former teacher in Garissa.
It put a Sh20 million bounty on his head for any person who would give information that would help in his arrest.
The “mastermind” has been on the run since December last year, when he was identified as the Shabaab commander who oversaw the killings of 58 Kenyans in Mandera.
Kuno is a former teacher and principal at Madrassa Najah in Garissa and has three aliases — Sheikh Mahamad, Dulyadin and Gamadhere.
Mr Boinnet appealed for calm as his officers struggled to defeat the terrorists.
“I urge Kenyans to remain calm as our officers work to make sure that the attackers are ejected from the hostels and normalcy returns within the shortest time possible,” he said.
Prior to the attack, security agents had been placed on high alert, particularly in North Eastern, Coast and Nairobi.
During the week, social media was awash with unverified information that Al-Shabaab was planning major attacks during the Easter holiday.
The University of Nairobi and the United States International University-Africa had issued alerts to students, asking them to be vigilant and cautious.
Garissa University College Dean of Students Jacktone Kweya Opande said students called him and told him that they had been attacked.
“We managed to call the county security officials who mobilised other security personnel but before they arrived, students kept calling us to tell us that their comrades had been shot and that some of them had even died,” said Mr Opande.
Yesterday afternoon, special forces arrived with tanks and other armoured vehicles to try and put to an end the attack.
Mr Nkaissery had, for the better part of the day, been holed up in meetings at the Garissa Police headquarters with top security chiefs, including Inspector-General Boinnet.
When the Nation team arrived, seriously wounded students were being airlifted to Nairobi. At the Garissa airstrip, medical personnel attended to one woman who writhed in pain, both legs bandaged as they carried her to an aircraft. She was one of many in the same condition.
At the airstrip, Kenya Defence Forces soldiers gathered terrified survivors, mostly students, inside their military camp. No photographs were allowed.
Some only had bathroom sandals, vests and shorts on. They sat and chatted in quiet tones. Some were on phone, perhaps assuring relatives that they were safe.
According to the official version, the attack started at 5.30am, when a group of attackers estimated to be five or less ambushed two guards armed with clubs at the college’s main gate.
The institution is situated in a complex area of schooling — there is a school for the deaf, a learning centre for the mentally disabled, two high schools and a teacher’s training institute.
The terrorists are said to have been selecting from among the students those who could not prove they were Muslim. Some were shot dead, others got injured. The rest were pushed to some room at gunpoint.
One student claimed she jumped over the fence after she heard gunshots.
“The gunfire was intense. It was early morning and every student was still in bed. They must have known everyone would be inside,” said the student who identified herself as Lillian. She was still scared, often speaking between sobs and wore a sleeveless top, perhaps a night dress.
Several others claimed they escaped because they could recite a verse from the Koran or answer a question related to the teachings of Islam.
“They stood in the main path from the hostels, asking questions about Islam and the Prophet. It was scary because Islam doesn’t teach about killing those who don’t know about the teachings,” said another student, Hassan Abdi.
Most students could not escape because the exit door was sealed by the attackers who, survivors said, spoke broken Kiswahili.
By yesterday afternoon, the Nation team could hear intense gunfire and what sounded like explosions. Security personnel did not allow journalists near the gate of the college and reporters were equally turned away at the Garissa Hospital gate.
BUSLOAD OF PEOPLE
But a busload of people, probably students, once emerged from the college and went straight to the nearby military camp where survivors were being kept away from the prying eyes of the media.
Several other police trucks were seen delivering more people to the military camp, situated next to the airstrip. Some had small children.
The government later admitted the hospital had also been overwhelmed from taking in the injured. They would be ferried to Nairobi for further attention, said the Interior CS.
Mr Nkaissery told reporters in Garissa that bodies of the dead would be taken to Nairobi for “proper preservation”.
The government said the siege would end “as soon as possible”.
Additional reporting Fred Mukinda