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Kenya's once safest town now famous for wrong reasons

Wednesday, November 21, 2012
by Fabian Mangera and Stephen Ingati

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GARISSA, Kenya, Nov. 21 (Xinhua) -- Kenya's northern town of Garissa that was once voted as the safest town in East and Central Africa by Interpol has all of a sudden lost its glory as it continues experiencing a spate of grenade and gun attacks allegedly being executed by Al-Shabaab militants.

The restive town which is located about 400 km northeast of Nairobi is the gateway to the expansion region besides housing regional headquarters for government and international organization offices.

But today as a senior United Nations or government official prepares to travel to Kenya's northern region especially Garissa, security precautions must be included in the itinerary.

Since Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) entered Somalia in October last year to pursue the militants, the town has turned to be the hardest hit in what is seen as retaliatory attacks by the embattled militants.

Social gatherings like churches, bars and stages have been the targets of these criminals with innocent civilians and security officers losing their lives and scores of others seriously wounded.

Visitors, who come to the town for the first time, are met with the glaring blue clouds of uncertainty and insecurity hanging over the sun baked northern city.

The attacks have left almost all-area residents complaining due to the manner in which they are executed in guerrilla style as assailants varnish in thin air immediately after the attacks.

The number of church goers has reduced drastically as worshippers, due to fear for their lives, opt to remain at home as they pray at home. The situation is the same at most social places with the owners admitting that business proceeds have reduced.

The grenade and landmine explosions have come as the biggest warning to Kenya so far that the insurgents are keen to orchestrate devastating terror attacks in the country after the capture of their strategic port city of Kismayo which served as the revenue collection center.

The trend of the attacks particularly in northern Kenya's districts which seemingly are well coordinated since several suspects have been arrested has heightened worries among Kenyans.

Just on Monday, three KDF soldiers who were replacing a tyre at a garage along Kismayo road in Garissa town were shot dead by suspected Al-Shabaab militants.

The soldiers were on transit to Somalia in a mission to restore peace and tranquility after capturing the strategic port city of Kismayo.

Two weeks ago, two plainclothes police officers on patrol were shot dead in Garissa market. A pistol was snatched from one of the officers.

A few weeks ago a regular police officer was shot dead and his colleague who accompanied the slain officer was seriously injured with the assailants escaping with a G-3 riffle belonging to the dead officer.

Early last month two police officers were shot dead near an administration police post by two men as they were going for a night patrol. In total at least 10 officers have lost their lives in the line of duty in the last two months.

So serious is the mater that a series of security meetings have been organized by the government in a bid to find a lasting solution to the insecurity problem.

The meetings with peace clerics, committee elders, youths and women leaders have so far not yielded any fruits.

Many believed Garissa town has been turned to the unofficial stronghold of the sympathizers and the militants fleeing annihilation by the African Mission in Somalia and Somalia Forces in neighboring Somalia.

Abdi Mohammed, a local businessman, admitted the town is full of Al-Shabaab sympathizers who are out to do all that they can to make sure that security does not prevail.

"It is simple, these people [Al-Shabaab] were offended when the government took its troops to Somalia to attack them," Mohammed told Xinhua in an interview in Garissa late on Tuesday.

"The situation was worsened by the capturing of the port of Kismayo. This is when the whole trouble started, and because Garissa is a cosmopolitan and big town it becomes good for them since they can commit their criminal acts and then run to the many settlements that are not far away from the town," he added.

"They believe doing so would easily scare and drive away residents and investors particularly those who hail from other parts of the country."

Kenya has blamed Somalia's al-Qaida-linked Al-Shabaab militants for a spate of attacks in Kenya in recent years especially in Nairobi, Mombasa and northern regions. The insurgents from Somalia have vowed to attack Kenya because Kenyan military forces entered Somalia last year to fight against the group.

Elizabeth Moraa who used to run a kiosk along Ngamia road where a grenade was hurled at a crowd last year, instantly killing six people, has since gone back to her rural home.

"I don't think it was possible for me to continue living and doing business in Garissa especially after witnessing such a deadly act which led to the death of some of my closest friends and customers," Moraa said.

"I decided to pack my belongings and re-settle to my rural home in Keroka where I am comfortable with the little I get. The safety of an individual comes fast before anything else," Moraa added.

Garissa County Commissioner Mohamed Maalim, one of the few local government officers who were transferred after the deadly church attack that claimed 17 lives on July 1, admitted the situation is serious in the town.

"For now they can continue doing their cowardice acts of killing innocent people and our security officers but we want to tell them wherever they are that their days are numbered, we will surely catch up with them," Maalim told Xinhua.

Divisional police commander, George Losku said it is important to come up with new ways of fighting crime in the district.

Since the attacks, police officers have taken to patrolling and setting up impromptu checkpoints and taken up positions outside churches, police stations and other high-profile installations targeted by the militants.

The killings of the three KDF officers were followed by a curfew that was placed by the officers who went searching for the suspected killers in residential houses.

There were allegations that civilians were beaten up by the KDF soldiers with others sustaining gun wounds and were admitted at the local hospitals and health facilities.

The incident prompted the Defense Minister Yussuf Haji to personally tour Garissa on Tuesday in a bid to restore calm in the town.

Haji assured Garissa residents of calm following the destruction of property worth millions of shillings and injuring of scores.

The minister said the culprits behind the killings of three KDF soldiers are being pursued and that they will soon be brought to justice.

The defense minister also visited the Garissa provincial general hospital to check on the patients who were receiving treatment as a result of injuries inflicted to them following Monday's swoop by security agents and KDF soldiers.

The minister said he will give his findings to the cabinet for any further necessary actions, saying he could not pre-empty everything to the press.

As for now Garissa town remains the most unsafe town as it continues to make headlines for all the wrong reasons.

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