The death toll at a university in northeastern Kenya has reached 147 after an attack claimed by the Somali militant group al Shabaab, according to government officials. Reports indicate the siege at the Garissa University College in northeastern Kenya on Thursday morning has come to an end, with authorities saying the campus is now secure and all four attackers are dead.
This figure makes Garissa the second most deadly terror attack in Kenya's recent history after the bombing of the US embassy in 1998. Authorities stated that nine victims in a critical state have been airlifted to Nairobi. Hundreds of students were evacuated earlier in the day, while an operation underway to rescue remaining students on campus.
In an attempt to bring order to the region, police inspector Joseph Boinnet also announced that a curfew will be implemented in Garissa and the surrounding counties between 6:30pm and 6:30am local time. This will be in effect until April 16.
The attack reportedly began at about 5am local time, when several assailants attacked the university, where they proceeded to separate out Muslim and non-Muslim students. A spokesperson for the group said that 15 Muslims were released.
Earlier, the Kenyan Interior Ministry announced that "two terrorists have been neutralized in the ongoing operation," and that the rescue operation was intensifying. A ministry spokesperson also threatened legal action against anyone who publishes "gory photos of victims" taken in Garissa.
When asked "What the hell is 'neutralizing' a terrorist?" the Interior Ministry tweeted back: "It's a security speak for killed."
Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, al Shabaab's military operations spokesman, told Reuters earlier: "We sorted people out and released the Muslims. There are many dead bodies of Christians inside the building. We are also holding many Christians alive. Fighting still goes on inside the college."
The Kenyan government named former Garissa teacher Mohamed Kuno as the mastermind behind the attack and named a reward for his capture, according to Kenya's Daily Nation.
Augustine Alanga, an economics student at Garissa, told VICE News that he had run for his life to escape the militants but some of his friends still remain missing. Noticeably shocked, he said he had heard that the university's principle and deputy principle were also still being kept captive by the gunmen. Alanga had moved away from the campus and was struggling to get information. "The number of deaths, they are increasing," he told VICE News.
Earlier on Thursday, a policeman on the scene, told Reuters, "we are finding it difficult to access the compound because some of the attackers are on top of a building and are firing at us whenever we try to gain entry."
Prior to completing the operation, troops and tanks were dispatched to the scene ,surrounding the buildings where the militants had sequestered themselves. The Kenyan Interior Ministry said that the militants had been cleared out of three of the university's four dormitories, but remained in control of one. A local journalist described the scene to VICE News as "hectic," and said that the media and civilians are being kept at a distance from the standoff.
A doctor at a local hospital told Reuters earlier in the course of the attack that so far they had received 49 casualties, all suffering bullet and shrapnel wounds. The Kenyan Red Cross announced that three critically wounded victims were being evacuated to Nairobi.
A police statement posted on Twitter appealed for information about the attack, while urging Kenyans to remain calm. It also provided some basic details about how the situation initially unfolded, saying that the attackers had begun shooting "indiscriminately" once inside the university.
The Kenyan Red Cross said it had dispatched a team of medics, including surgeons, who would airlift critical patients to the capital, Nairobi.
The Kenyan Interior Ministry claimed that one "suspected terrorist" had been arrested as he tried to flee the site. Hours after the initial ambush, Garissa governor spokesperson Abdulkadir Sugow said that gunfire had become sporadic, and the militants had moved to the building's roof in order to command an "aerial view" of the surrounding security forces.
Warfa Bainah, a high school student in Garissa, told VICE News that the town had quieted down and he hadn't heard any gunshots for about three hours.
He said that universities across Kenya had been warned of the possibility of an attack, and extra security measures had been put in place at many. However, he added ruefully, "Garissa is a very small town." Bainah claimed that two military men were on duty during the day, and four at night, compared to a much larger presence at larger universities.
Bainah also said that in the northeast of the country people had grown somewhat accustomed to the threat. On what needed to be done to improve security for locals, he told VICE News that he believes "the problem is how they're getting into the country." Bainah claimed that corruption and ineffective border guards play a major role in this.
Meanwhile, questions are being raised over why the university was targeted, and whether fatalities were preventable. KTN suggested that the university was selected as it wasn't "very well guarded," and also had a particularly diverse student population. Garissa is situated about 90 miles from the Somali border.
There have also been suggestions that the university had been alerted that it might come under attack.
Grace Kai, a student at a local teacher training college, told Reuters: "Some strangers had been spotted in Garissa town and were suspected to be terrorists. Then on Monday our college principal told us... that strangers had been spotted in our college... On Tuesday we were released to go home, and our college closed, but the campus remained in session, and now they have been attacked."
However, Alanga told VICE News that he had been given no warning. "Nobody was aware. All the students were inside the campus," he said. Another Garissa resident — who didn't want to be named — told VICE News that many locals were considering leaving the town due to security fears.
The threat of terror attacks remains a constant fear in Kenya, particularly after the 2013 siege at Nairobi's popular Westgate mall, during which at least 67 people died. The persistent insecurity surrounding it has also had devastating consequences for Kenya's economy — particularly the tourism sector.
In a statement following a spate of al Shabaab attacks in December, Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta said that the country was "under attack" from "an enemy hiding behind religion, and much innocent blood has been shed. Kenya has been subjected to a long history of murder and violence at the hands of bandits, terrorists and extremists."
However, Thursday's university attack adds credence to the civilian voices who criticize him for inaction.
Kenyatta released another statement on Thursday afternoon, extending condolences to the families of those who had died. "We continue to pray for the quick recovery of the injured, and the safe rescue of those held hostage," he said. He added that it was important that everyone remain "vigilant as we continue to confront and defeat our enemies."
Kenyatta then said that he was making moves to ensure that additional police officers be trained and appointed.
The White House issued a statement condemning the attack this afternoon, referring to the attack as "cowardly." In the statement, the US said it is providing assistance to the Kenyan Government and that it stands by the people of Kenya.
"We extend our deep condolences to the families and loved ones of all those killed in this heinous attack, which reportedly included the targeting of Christian students," the White House press secretary's statement read. "The United States is providing assistance to the Kenyan Government, and we will continue to partner with them as well as with others in the region to take on the terrorist group al Shabaab."
Kenya is not the only victim of al Shabaab's brutal attacks. The group — who aim to establish an Islamic caliphate — have publicly called for attacks on shopping centers in the UK, Canada, and America.
Tuesday saw the assassination of Joan Kagezi, a Ugandan state prosecutor who was leading a case against 13 men accused of carrying out an al Shabaab bombing in Kampala. The country is a target because it participates in the African Union mission in Somalia.
Last Friday the group stormed a popular hotel in Somali capital Mogadishu. The 12-hour siege that followed resulted in at least 14 deaths.
Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd