NAIROBI (AFP) – A suspected grenade attack on a Nairobi church Sunday killed one child and wounded nine others, triggering reprisal violence against the Somali community although no group claimed responsibility.
The blast, during a service for youngsters at a church on the outskirts of Nairobi, came a day after Islamist Shebab fighters abandoned their last bastion in neighbouring Somalia in the face of an assault by Kenyan and other troops.
Blood-stained children’s jackets and shoes lay scattered on the floor of the Anglican St. Polycarp church, surrounded by remnants of metal walls that were broken and twisted by the force of the explosion.
“One child has died and three others have been seriously injured,” Nairobi police chief Moses Nyakwama told AFP. “We suspect it was a grenade.”
Witnesss Janet Wanja said she was just entering the church in the Pangani district on the outskirts of the Kenyan capital when the blast shook the building.
“I heard a loud explosion and then heard kids screaming,” she said. “I am traumatised by what I saw, kids with injuries and blood all over. “Why are they attacking the church?”
After the attack, dozens of angry people hurled rocks at Somalis and stoned buildings belonging to members of the community, but noone was reported injured in the chaos.
“Some witnesses are telling us they saw two men of Somali origin running towards the back of the church where explosion occurred,” Wilfred Mbithi, head of police operations in Nairobi, told AFP.
“No one knows where they disappeared to. We are trying to get their description… they are likely suspects,” he added.
Pangani is situated next to the Eastleigh quarter, nicknamed “little Mogadishu” because most residents are either Somali refugees or Kenyans of Somali origin.
Noone has yet claimed responsibility for the church attack, the latest in a string of grenade attacks, shootings and bomb blasts that have rocked Kenya since it sent troops into southern Somalia in October 2011 to crush bases of Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab fighters.
On Saturday, the Shebab retreated from their last stronghold in Somalia, leaving the southern port city of Kismayo that has been a vital economic lifeline for the Islamists.
Shebab spokesman Ali Mohamud Rage had warned that the militia would remain a threat.
“We are still in the outskirts of Kismayo and it will remain a battle zone… The enemy will not sleep peacefully.”
In the deadliest church attack in Kenya, suspected Shebab militants hurled grenades and opened fire at worshippers in the northeastern town of Garissa in July, killing 18 people.
Church official Livingstone Muiruri said nine children had also been wounded in Sunday’s blast, adding that those attending the service were aged between six and 10.
Asman Mohamed, whose house is next to the church, told AFP the children were singing when a loud blast ripped through the building.
“I was terrified… I just peeped through the window and saw people running around the church… I saw children being taken out with injuries. Other kids were running out crying,” Mohamed said.
Police were also investigating the possibility that the blast was caused by a bomb that had been planted in the church earlier, Mbithi said.
Some experts say the attacks on churches in Kenya are reminiscent of those waged by Nigeria’s radical Islamist group, Boko Haram, which has been blamed for hundreds of deaths during its insurgency in northern and central Nigeria.
But local MP Magret Wanjiru insisted: “There is no religious war in Kenya.”
“One cannot understand why churches should be attacked. What has happened is unfortunate and should be a wake up call for the government,” he said, noting that suspects in previous church attacks had not been arrested.
In the chaotic aftermath of the blast, around 100 angry people targeted people of Somali appearance and their homes in Pangani, stoning vehicles and shattering windows of at least two residential buildings, an AFP correspondent said.
The mobs were dispersed by Kenyan police while Somalis were seen running to the safety of their houses where they locked themselves in.
Four journalists of Somali origin working for Horn Cable TV were arrested as they took photographs of the scene, witnessess said.
In Somalia, the Kenyan army said helicopter gunships were attacking Shebab bases outside Kismayo to clear the way for a final ground assault on the city after the Islamists announced a “strategic retreat”.
Observers say the loss of Kismayo would leave the Shebab, who once controlled 80 percent of the country in its insurgency, unable to retain large swathes of territory.