NAIROBI, Kenya — Armed terrorists stormed a university in northern Kenya on Thursday, killing 147 people, wounding dozens and taking hostages during a 15-hour siege until four militants were killed by security forces. Christians and converts to Islam appeared to have been the targets.
More than 550 students were evacuated and 79 were injured in the standoff on the Garissa University campus, about 90 miles from the Somali border. The Somali-based Islamic terrorist group al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the attack — the al-Qaeda-linked organization’s deadliest in Kenya.
Students gather and watch outside Garissa University College on April 2.
Students said the gunmen separated Christians from Muslims and held hostages in a dormitory, where they placed explosives around the Christian hostages, according to Kenya’s National Police Service.
PLAYLIST | Kenya University Attack
Kenyan Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Nkaissery said some students were killed during morning prayers at the mosque. Jackson Kamau, a student at the university, said the militants killed those who were likely converts to Islam. Locals can differentiate between Somali Muslims born into Islam and those who have converted because they come from different ethnic groups.
“We’ll not allow terrorists to divide our country on religious lines,” said Aden Duale, majority leader in Kenya’s National Assembly.
Most of the 147 dead were students. Two security guards, one policeman and one soldier also were killed in the attack, Nkaissery said.
One suspected extremist was arrested as he tried to flee, Nkaissery told a news conference in Nairobi.
Heavy gunfire erupted at the college as the Kenyan military worked to end the siege. Police Inspector General Joseph Boinett said a dusk-to-dawn curfew will be in place in Garissa and three neighboring counties starting Friday through April 16.
The White House strongly condemned the attack and said the United States was providing assistance to the Kenyan government.
“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,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in a statement.
Kenyan police offered a $220,000 bounty for Mohammed Mohamud, also known as Dulyadin and Gamadhere, who they suspect planned the attack.
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Students who were able to escape said gunmen stormed the university, setting off explosives and shooting people on the campus just after 5 a.m. local time.
“Most of us were asleep when the incident happened,” said Nicholas Ntulu, a student at the university. “We heard heavy gunfire and explosions. Every person ran for dear life as we passed the gunmen. Several (students) were shot dead.
“There was nobody to help us at the time of the attack,” he said. “The police officers took more than an hour to arrive at the scene.”
President Uhuru Kenyatta urged Kenyans to stay calm. “This is a moment for everyone throughout the country to be vigilant as we continue to confront and defeat our enemies,” he said.
Kenyatta ordered the inspector general of police to accelerate the applications of 10,000 recruits for the Kenya Police College.
“We have suffered unnecessarily due to shortage of security personnel,” he said. “Kenya badly needs additional officers, and I will not keep the nation waiting.”
Frightened students rescued from the university gathered at a military camp near the Garissa airstrip.
“The sounds of gunfire was all over — we couldn’t tell what was the right direction to go to be safe,” said Ann Musyoka, a second-year student. “We had to face the gunmen — they shot several people as we escaped towards the gate.”
Victims were rushed to a hospital, and those critically injured were airlifted to the capital, Nairobi.
“I was not at the institution when the incident occurred, but several students phoned me, crying over the attacks,” said Jacktone Kweya, the dean of students. “When I tried calling them back, their phones were off. It’s very disturbing.”
Robert Godec, the U.S. ambassador to Kenya, said the United States “strongly condemns” the attack.
“We extend our deepest condolences to all who have been affected,” he said in a statement. “The attack once again reinforces the need for all countries and communities to unite in the effort to combat violent extremism.”
The assault comes in the wake of an intelligence report issued last week by security officials warning that al-Shabab was planning an attack on major institutions in retaliation for Kenyan military action in Somalia as part of an African Union initiative against the group.
Al-Shabab has carried out several attacks in Garissa and across Kenya in the past few years, including an attack in 2013 at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi that left 67 people dead, and others on mosques in Mombasa, a coastal city in the east.
Nairobi-based security analyst Abdiwahab Sheikh said the incident highlights how the government has failed to shore up security in the country.
“The government has not learned anything from the Westgate attack,” he said. “How do you allow terrorists to take students hostage for more 10 hours? I think our security forces need to learn from the past.”