GARISSA, Kenya (AP) — The Islamic extremists who slaughtered 147 people at a college in northeast Kenya as they shouted “God is great” appeared to have planned extensively, even targeting a site where Christians had gone to pray, survivors said Friday.
In Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, family members went to a morgue where some bodies had been airlifted from Garissa, victims of the worst attack in Kenya since the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy by al-Qaida which killed more than 200 people. Screaming and crying relatives were assisted by Kenyan Red Cross staffers, who tried to console them.
Some Kenyans were angry that the government didn’t take sufficient security precautions. The attack at Garissa University College happened six days after Britain advised “against all but essential travel” to parts of Kenya, including Garissa.
One day before the attack, President Uhuru Kenyatta dismissed the warning as well as an Australian one pertaining to Nairobi and Mombasa, saying: “Kenya is safe as any country in the world. The travel advisories being issued by our friends are not genuine.”
Kenyatta would have been mindful that previous travel warnings, like for popular Kenyan beach areas, have hurt the country’s tourism industry.
One man posted a photo on Twitter showing about 100 bodies lying face-down on a blood-smeared courtyard with the comment: “Our inaction is betrayal to these Garissa victims”
Babu Owino, the chairman of the Students Organization for Nairobi University, said the government’s behavior shows it is not serious in fighting extremist attacks.
John Njue, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Nairobi, who celebrated Good Friday services, cited the “murdered” students and said, “This is a tremendous challenge in our country.”
Pope Francis on Friday condemned the attack as an act of “senseless brutality” and called for those responsible to change their violent ways. In a telegram of condolence, Francis also urged Kenyan authorities to work to bring an end to such attacks and “hasten the dawn of a new era of brotherhood, justice and peace.”
Police on Friday were at the campus of Garissa University College, taking fingerprints from the bodies of the four assailants and of the students and security officials who died, for thorough identification purposes. The town lacks the facilities to store all the bodies.
One of the first things that the al-Shabab gunmen did when they assaulted the campus early Thursday, survivor Helen Titus said, was to head for a lecture hall where Christians were in prayer. Al-Shabab is a Somalia-based Islamic extremist group with ties to al-Qaida.
“They investigated our area. They knew everything,” Helen Titus told The Associated Press outside a hospital in Garissa where she was being treated for a bullet wound to the wrist. Officials said 79 people were wounded.
Titus, a 21-year-old English literature student, said she smeared blood from classmates on her face and hair and lay still at one point during al-Shabab’s deadliest attack on Kenyan soil in hopes the extremist gunmen would think she was dead.
The gunmen also told students hiding in dormitories to come out, assuring them that they would not be killed, said Titus, who wore a patient’s gown as she sat on a bench in the hospital yard.
“We just wondered whether to come out or not,” she said. Many students did, whereupon the gunmen started shooting men, saying they would not kill “ladies,” Titus said. But they also shot women and targeted Christians, said Titus, who is a Christian.
Esther Wanjiru said she was awake at the time of the attack. Asked if she lost anyone, she said: “My best friend.”
Another survivor, Nina Kozel, said she was woken up by screaming and that many students escaped by sprinting to the fences and jumping over them. Some suffered bruises, she said. Many men were unable to escape, and hid in vain under beds and in closets in their rooms, according to Kozel.
“They were shot there and then,” she said.
Those who surrendered were either selected for killing, or freed in some cases, apparently because they were Muslim, she said.
The killers shouted “God is great” in Arabic, she said.
Security forces stood guard Friday at the gate of the school. School slogans on the wall outside said “Oasis of Innovation” and “A World Class University of Technological Processes and Development.”
At one point, a group approached the college gate and was blocked by soldiers. At another site where students were awaiting evacuation, several women began shrieking and collapsed in the dust for several minutes. A bystander said the son of one of the women had died in the attack.
A small group of male demonstrators walked down a main road in Garissa with signs that read “We are against the killing of innocent Kenyans!!!! We are tired!!” and “Enough is enough. No more killing!! We are with you, our fellow Kenyans.”
“We feel very sorry for them and we condemn the attack,” demonstrator Abdullahi Muktar said of the victims.
Some surviving students awaited evacuation to Nairobi by plane from a nearby airstrip.
The masked attackers — strapped with explosives and armed with AK-47s —took dozens of hostages in a dormitory as they battled troops and police before the violence ended after about 13 hours, witnesses said.
Al-Shabab spokesman Ali Mohamud Rage said the group was responsible for the attack. Al-Shabab has carried out numerous attacks in Kenya, including the siege at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi in 2013 that killed 67 people, to retaliate against Kenya for sending troops to Somalia in 2011 to fight the militants and stabilize the Somali government.
Somali President Said Hassan Sheikh Mohamud called for stronger collaboration between Somalia and Kenya to defeat al-Shabab.
Odula reported from Nairobi, Kenya. Abdi Guled in Mogadishu, Somalia contributed to this report.
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