MOMBASA, Kenya — Gunmen killed six worshipers in a church near the coastal city of Mombasa on Sunday, an attack of the kind that Islamist militants have been carrying out in retaliation for Kenya’s intervention in neighboring Somalia.
Witnesses said the attackers burst in through the church’s back door before shouting out and opening fire on the congregation.
“Both carried big guns and began shooting all over the place. I fell to the ground and could hear screams,” said Lilian Omondi, who was leading a prayer meeting at the time.
Blood-spattered Bibles, overturned plastic chairs and bullet casings lay strewn on the floor.
Two people were killed at the church and four died of wounds at a hospital, according to the Kenya Red Cross.
The attackers tried to raid a second church nearby but fled when armed police appeared. A top Interior Ministry official later said the gunmen had escaped.
Robert Mureithi, the local police chief, said Sunday’s assault had “all the indicators of a terrorist attack because the attackers did not steal anything and appeared focused on killing.”
Police threw a dragnet over the Likoni neighborhood, where the shooting occurred, rounding up more than 100 youths for questioning, Mureithi said.
There was no assertion of responsibility for the attack.
The Somali Islamist militant group al-Shabab and its local sympathizers have carried out attacks in Kenya, some of them on churches, in retaliation for the Kenyan army’s intervention against al-Shabab in Somalia.
Kenyans have become increasingly alarmed at the relative ease with which militants appear to move around East Africa’s biggest economy, a recipient of U.S. counterterrorism funding. Parliament called for better coordination between the security and intelligence agencies after dozens of people were killed in an al-Shabab attack on a shopping mall in Nairobi in September.
The Kenyan coast’s large Muslim minority, many of whom feel marginalized by the predominantly Christian government, has been a fertile recruitment ground for Islamist militant networks. Breaking up those networks has become a priority for the Nairobi government, but moderate Muslim clerics say its heavy-handed tactics have fueled resentment among Muslim youths.
“The attackers have not done this on behalf of any religion or right-thinking group,” said Sheik Juma Ngao, a prominent Muslim cleric in Mombasa. “If they are hoping to drive a wedge between religious groups in this region, then they are greatly mistaken.”