Scores of others were wounded in the assault, still ongoing over 12 hours after the first grenades were used to blast open the gates of the university in the northeastern town of Garissa, near the lawless border with war-torn Somalia. Hostages believed to be only Christian, were taken.
The Al-Qaeda-linked Al Shabab claimed the pre-dawn attack, the same insurgents who carried out the Westgate shopping mall massacre in Nairobi in September 2013, when four gunmen slaughtered at least 67 people in a four-day bloodbath.
“We were woken up by sounds of gunfire … no one knew exactly what was going on, ladies were screaming and people were running for their lives,” student Ungama John said.
Other students said they saw up to four masked gunmen.
Shebab spokesperson Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage told AFP the gunmen had taken non-Muslims hostage, but gave no numbers.
“When our men arrived, they released the Muslims. We are holding others hostage,” Rage said, describing those seized as Christians.
“Our people are still there, they are fighting and their mission is to kill those who are against the Shabab,” he said.
“Kenya is at war with Somalia,” Rage said, referring to the thousands of Kenyan troops in Somalia as part of an African Union military mission.
Gunfire could still be heard sporadically 12 hours after the attack began, as Kenya’s interior ministry said the “attackers have been cornered in one hostel”.
Soldiers with tanks were deployed around the campus.
‘Gunmen shot indiscriminately’
Earlier, the Interior Minister Joseph Nkaissery said 70 people had been killed, and that “one suspected terrorist” had been arrested attempting to flee. The death toll had later risen to 147.
A $215 000 bounty was offered for the capture of alleged Shabab commander Mohamed Mohamud, a former Kenyan teacher believed to now be in Somalia and said to be the mastermind of the Kenya attacks.
The Kenya Red Cross, which is leading the medical response to the attack, said there were “an unknown number of student hostages”.
The town of Garissa is around 150 kilometres west of Somalia and has in the past been targeted by militants from the Shabab.
Police chief Joseph Boinet said “the gunmen shot indiscriminately” after storming the compound.
The sprawling campus, on the outskirts of the garrison town, has both teaching areas as well as residential blocks.
The university has several hundred students from different parts of Kenya. The number of teachers and students trapped inside the campus was unclear as gunfire and explosions were heard coming from the site.
“Police … engaged the gunmen in a fierce shootout, however the attackers retreated and gained entry into one of the hostels,” Boinet said, adding that reinforcements had arrived and were “flushing out the gunmen.”
Wave of attacks
Kenya has been hit by a wave of grenade and gun attacks, often blamed on sympathisers of the Shebab and sometimes aimed at police targets, since the army crossed into southern Somalia in 2011 to attack Islamist bases.
A series of foreign travel warnings in response to the threat have crippled Kenya’s economically important tourism industry.
On Wednesday, just hours before the attack in Garissa began, President Uhuru Kenyatta said Kenya “is as safe as any country in the world”.
On Thursday, he offered condolences to those killed, but said security forces had made the “appropriate deployment to the affected area.”
However, he also ordered the “urgent” enrolment of a planned 10 000 police recruit boost, warning Kenya had “suffered unnecessarily due to shortage of security personnel.”
British High Commissioner Christian Turner condemned the “cowardly” attack, while US Ambassador Robert Godec called the killings “heinous”.
Kenya’s government has been under fire since the Westgate attack. In June and July last year Shebab gunmen killed close to 100 people in a series of attacks on the town of Mpeketoni and nearby villages.
In November, Shebab claimed responsibility for holding up a bus outside Mandera town, separating passengers according to religion and murdering 28 non-Muslims. Ten days later 36 non-Muslim quarry workers were also massacred in the area.
Kenyan troops killed two gunmen from the Shabab fighters, the interior ministry said.
“Two of the terrorists have been killed and the security forces are doing their best to free the hostages,” Interior Ministry spokesperson Mwenda Njoka said, with “security agencies intensifying the rescue operation”. Later, the ministry confirmed that four assailants had been killed.
Kenya’s official National Disaster Operation Centre said a further 65 had been injured, many suffering from gunshot wounds.
Kenyan troops have ended the day-long college campus siege, the national disaster operations centre said late Thursday.
“The operation at Garissa University College has ended, with all four terrorists killed,” the centre said, with the attack lasting some 16 hours from before dawn until well after dark. – AFP