Al Shabaab militants ambushed several Kenyan police vehicles Monday in Kenya's Eastern Garissa county, close to the border with Somalia. There was confusion Tuesday over the number of officers reported dead, injured or missing.
Despite an initial police report announcing that 13 police officers had been "missing" since Monday's attack near the village of Yumbis, Garissa police commander Shadrack Maithya confirmed Tuesday that all officers had been accounted for, and that they were all "safe and sound."
Confusion remained, however, over the number of fatalities, with al Shabaab fighters claiming they had killed 25 Kenyan officers in the ambush — a claim that Kenyan Interior Minister Joseph Nkaissery wrote off as "pure propaganda."
This account was also denied by the Kenyan police, who claimed that 5 police officers had been injured and two al Shabaab gunmen had been killed in the attack.
The uncertainty persisted into the morning, when the Kenyan presidency posted a tweet stating that President Uhuru Kenyatta had sent a message of condolence to the victims' families, even as the interior ministry tweeted that there had been no fatalities.
Later on Tuesday, Inspector-General of Police Joseph Boinnet confirmed that five officers had been injured, two of them critically. According to France 24, one of the injured officers has since died as a result of his wounds.
Kenyan newspaper Daily Nation said the the attack had started Monday afternoon, when three police officers were injured after their vehicle ran over a land mine near the village of Yumbis. According to reports, four police vehicles that arrived as back-up were ambushed by militants, who exchanged gunfire with the police before destroying five police vehicles using rocket-launchers.
The ambush came just a week after al Shabaab militants attacked the village of Yumbis, gathering locals in a mosque and preaching to them for two hours, according to Al Jazeera reporter Hamza Mohamed. Militants were eventually pushed back by the armed forces.
According to anthropologist Benoit Hazard, who also works at France's National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), "It's the first time that al Shabaab engages in this type of preaching in the region." Speaking to VICE News on Tuesday, Hazard said that this form of religious proselytizing was "a new thing" for the group.
Formed in 2006, Somalia-based jihadist group al Shabaab has repeatedly launched cross-border raids in neighboring Kenya over the last few years — mainly in retaliation for the 2011 Kenyan army deployment in Somalia.
The insurgent's main demand, said Hazard, is the withdrawal of Kenyan troops stationed in south Somalia. Al Shabaab's objective, he explained, was "to establish a caliphate in the Horn of Africa" and to implement Sharia law. Today, the researcher added, the group counts its members at "close to 5,000 [insurgents], versus 20,000 in 2011."
Hazard described Monday's attack as falling within the scope of a "conventional war," with clashes between militants and the armed forces rather than civilians.
"Last night's attack was clearly a skirmish [between insurgents] and the armed forces, perhaps provoked by al Shabaab," he said, adding that the area was crawling with soldiers following the militants' visit to Yumbis last week.
In April, al Shabaab claimed responsibility for the Garissa University College attack, in which 148 students were killed. Following the attack, President Kenyatta said that the Islamist group posed an "existential threat" to Kenya, adding that the attackers were "embedded in our communities."
Hazard also alluded to the "progressive infiltration [of militants] into the Kenyan territory," and said several people arrested or killed in connection with the Garissa siege were Kenyan nationals.
In 2013, al Shabaab also claimed responsibility for the Westgate shopping mall attack in Kenya's capital Nairobi, in which gunmen opened fire on shoppers, killing 72.
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