Nairobi: At least 17 people were killed and 60 others wounded after masked assailants launched simultaneous gun and grenade raids on two churches in Garissa, the north Kenya town, used as a base for operations against al-Qaeda-linked insurgents in Somalia, media reported on Sunday.
The attacks were the worst in the country since Kenya sent troops into Somalia to crush al-Shabaab militants, linked to al-Qaeda.
“This is the worst single attack since October, when our troops went into Somalia,” national police spokesman Eric Kiraithe told Reuters.
“It is the worst in terms of the numbers killed, the manner of execution, the anger behind it and the anguish it has aroused as well as the national impact it has had.”
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks in Garissa, a largely Muslim town of 150,000 with a significant ethnic Somali population.
Police said they suspected al-Shabaab sympathizers or bandits may have been behind the raids, but it was too early to say. In Somalia, al Shabaab declined to comment.
Regional deputy police chief Philip Ndolo told Reuters from Garissa that seven attackers had hurled grenades into the Catholic Church and the African Inland Church (AIC) and then opened fire with assault rifles.
They struck the churches, situated 3 km (two miles) apart, at around 10.15 a.m. (0715 GMT) Two policemen guarding the AIC church following previous attacks were among those killed.
“The goons were clad in balaclavas,” said Ndolo.
“You can imagine for such a small town how the police and medical services have been stretched trying to deal with this.”
Television footage showed benches knocked over at the AIC church and blood pooled on the floor and spattered over the walls. Garments, shoes and bibles were strewn around.
Police milled outside the churches which were cordoned off by investigators who were picking at fragments and taking notes.
“We have 17 bodies at the mortuary so far,” regional medical officer Abdikadir Sheikh told Reuters.
Paul Mwalali, 52, a worshipper at the AIC church, told the Daily Nation newspaper he heard objects hit the roof before explosions rocked the church.
“I had a front row seat in the church. I heard something fall on the roof. Then there was a huge explosion. I (fell) on the ground. Then there was shooting and people were screaming,” he said.