Forty-eight people, including 11 children, were massacred on Wednesday morning in a fight over water and pasture in Tana River County.
In what is believed to be a revenge attack, the Orma residents of Riketa village, Tarasa division, deep in the swamps of the Tana delta were set upon by raiders thought to be from the Pokomo.
The attack is believed to be in revenge for another one a week ago at a village called Kau, in Kilelengwani, some 10 kilometres from Riketa, in which suspected Orma herdsmen killed three Pokomo villagers, injured six others, killed livestock and burnt homes.
The two ethnic groups have a long history of conflict over access to the waters of Tana River and the fertile lands of the delta.
Wednesday's raid, in the early hours of the morning, caught the villagers unawares.
Local leaders reacted with fury, accusing the government of failing to prevent the clashes.
Garsen MP Danson Mungatana accused the government of laxity and “reluctance to act” to stop the attacks. He demanded an immediate ministerial statement.
Whereas preventing conflict in the inaccessible swampland might be difficult, government officials did not seem to have fresh ideas on how to approach the clashes.
And the suspected Orma herdsmen believed to have been responsible for the Kau killings have not been arrested.
“We cannot take a whole community to jail. Is it possible?” asked Coast provincial commissioner Samuel Kilele.
Coast deputy police boss Robert Kitur said among the dead were 31 women, 11 children and six men.
Police are now on the ground in strength — a contingent of 200 officers from the Administration Police, regular police and the General Service Unit has been deployed to end the tit-for-tat blood-letting.
“I am on my way there right now, but as we speak, 200 officers are on the ground and have taken charge of the situation, conducting patrols and ensuring safety of the residents,” Mr Kitur told the Nation in a telephone interview.
He said the killings were a retaliation by the Pokomo against the Orma over the Kau attack.
Earlier, the Kenya Red Cross had estimated the number of dead at “between 30 and 50”.
Mr Sadique Kakai, KRC’s head of disaster response in Coast region, said: “We have reports that the dead range between 30 and 50.”
Coast police chiefs were earlier tight-lipped about the attack as they went into a meeting with Mr Kilele.
Speaking to journalists in his office, Mr Kilele declined to confirm the number killed, saying he was waiting for a report from the ground.
“The police we sent to the ground have not managed to reach the village as the area is swampy and had to take an alternative route. Until I get their report, I do not want to speculate on the numbers,” he said.
He added that the solution to the frequent clashes between the two groups should come from the two peoples and not from the government.
“Our approach was to have a peace meeting with them. In the discussions, they agreed to maintain peace and it seems everything entered in the right ear and went out the other ear. As a result they have gone ahead and attacked each other,” he said.
According to Mr Kilele, the government was keen to resolve the conflict through peace committees in the area.
“The government has no answer to the Tana River problem. We have told the two groups to come and discuss to get a solution. We agreed that if herds invade the farms and get killed, Sh10,000 compensation needs to be paid to the aggrieved,” he said.
Tana River County Council chairman Salim Golo Gure described the attack as sad.
“It is sad to see innocent women, children and animals killed aimlessly. This is something that should be condemned by both groups,” he said.
Like Mr Mungatana, Mr Gure accused government officials of slow response in preventing the attacks and said officials were coordinating activities from their offices.
“We are disturbed that the PC is hesitant to visit the area. Had it been a bomb blast, everyone would have left work and rushed there. But today, it is the other way round,” he said.
In Mombasa, some Muslim leaders condemned the killings.
The Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya organising-secretary Sheikh Mohammed Khalifa said a team from his organisation that was on the ground confirmed 48 deaths and several other people with injuries.
Sheikh Khalifa also said that the team led by Tana River branch coordinator Sheikh Omar Kudo would assess the situation and provide humanitarian assistance.
“We facilitated means and ways of ferrying those injured to hospitals. Our team on the ground has confirmed 48 deaths including 31 women, six men and 11 children. An unspecified number of people were injured while about 60 cattle were killed,” Sheikh Khalifa said.
He said that they were also planning for burials.
He appealed to the Orma and Pokomos to end bloodshed, saying it was unfortunate since both were Muslims.
The cleric also challenged the government to take strong action and put up elaborate security measures to end the clashes in Kilelengwa and Kau areas.
Reported by Anthony Kitimo, Winnie Atieno, Bozo Jenje and Galgalo Bocha