Gunmen had scouted Kenya campus before deadly attack: survivor

Students evacuated from Moi University during a terrorist siege react as they gather together in Garissa on April 3, 2015 before being transported to their home regions. CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images

GARISSA, Kenya – The Islamic extremists who slaughtered 148 people at a college in northeast Kenya as they shouted “God is great” appeared to have planned extensively, even targeting a site where Christians had gone to pray, survivors said Friday.

In the capital of Nairobi, relatives of the victims went to a morgue where some bodies had been airlifted from the campus of Garissa University College in eastern Kenya. Screaming and crying family members were assisted by Red Cross staffers, who tried to console them.

READ MORE: Christians targeted in al-Shabab attack on Kenya university that killed 147

The attack was the worst in Kenya since the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy by al-Qaida that killed more than 200 people.

Thursday’s assault in Garissa was carried out by militants of the Somalia-based extremist group al-Shabab. The organization has struck the country several times in recent years, but this attack was the deadliest.

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Some Kenyans were angry that the government didn’t take sufficient security precautions. The attack came six days after Britain advised “against all but essential travel” to parts of Kenya, including Garissa.

A day before the attack, President Uhuru Kenyatta dismissed that warning as well as an Australian one pertaining to Nairobi and Mombasa, saying: “Kenya is safe as any country in the world. The travel advisories being issued by our friends are not genuine.”

Kenyatta would have been mindful that previous travel warnings have hurt the country’s tourism industry.

One man posted a photo on Twitter showing about 100 bodies lying face-down on a blood-smeared courtyard with the comment: “Our inaction is betrayal to these Garissa victims”

Babu Owino, the chairman of the Students Organization for Nairobi University, said the government’s behaviour shows it is not serious in fighting extremist attacks.

John Njue, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Nairobi, who celebrated Good Friday services, cited the “murdered” students and said, “This is a tremendous challenge in our country.”

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Pope Francis on Friday condemned the attack as an act of “senseless brutality” and called for those responsible to change their violent ways. In a telegram of condolence, Francis also urged Kenyan authorities to work to bring an end to such attacks and “hasten the dawn of a new era of brotherhood, justice and peace.”

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Police on Friday were at the Garissa campus, taking fingerprints from the bodies of the four assailants and of the students and security officials who died, for identification purposes. The town lacks the facilities to store all the bodies.

Interior Minister Joseph Nkaissery updated the number of people killed by the gunmen to 148. He said 142 of the dead were students, three were policemen and three were soldiers.

Nkaissery added that 104 people were wounded.

Survivor Helen Titus said one of the first things that the al-Shabab gunmen did when they entered the campus early Thursday was to head for a lecture hall where Christians were in prayer. Al-Shabab is a Somalia-based Islamic extremist group with ties to al-Qaida.

“They investigated our area. They knew everything,” Titus told The Associated Press outside a hospital in Garissa where she was being treated for a bullet wound to the wrist.

Titus, a 21-year-old English literature student, said she smeared blood from classmates on her face and hair and lay still at one point in hopes the gunmen would think she was dead.

The gunmen also told students hiding in dormitories to come out, assuring them that they would not be killed, said Titus, who wore a patient’s gown as she sat on a bench in the hospital yard.

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“We just wondered whether to come out or not,” she said. Many students did, whereupon the gunmen started shooting men, saying they would not kill “ladies,” Titus said. But they also shot women and targeted Christians, said Titus, who is a Christian.

Esther Wanjiru said she was awake at the time of the attack. Asked if she lost anyone, she said: “My best friend.”

Another survivor, Nina Kozel, said she was awakened by screaming and that many students escaped by sprinting to the fences and jumping over them. Some suffered bruises, she said. Many men were unable to escape, and hid in vain under beds and in closets in their rooms, according to Kozel.

Those who surrendered were either selected for killing, or freed in some cases, apparently because they were Muslim, she said.

The killers shouted “God is great” in Arabic, she said.

Security forces stood guard Friday at the gate of the school. School slogans on the wall outside said “Oasis of Innovation” and “A World Class University of Technological Processes and Development.”

Elsewhere in Garissa, soldiers blocked a group of women that approached a military-controlled site where students were awaiting evacuation, prompting several women to collapse, shrieking, in the dust for several minutes. A bystander said the son of one of the women had died in the attack.

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A small group of male demonstrators walked down a main road in Garissa with signs that read “We are against the killing of innocent Kenyans!!!! We are tired!!” and “Enough is enough. No more killing!! We are with you, our fellow Kenyans.”

“We feel very sorry for them and we condemn the attack,” demonstrator Abdullahi Muktar said of the victims.

Some surviving students awaited evacuation to Nairobi by plane from a nearby airstrip.

The masked attackers – strapped with explosives and armed with AK-47s – took dozens of hostages in a dormitory as they battled troops and police before the violence ended after about 13 hours, witnesses said.

Al-Shabab spokesman Ali Mohamud Rage said the group was responsible for the attack. Al-Shabab has carried out numerous attacks in Kenya, including the siege at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi in 2013 that killed 67 people, to retaliate against Kenya for sending troops to Somalia in 2011 to fight the militants and stabilize the government in Mogadishu.

Somali President Said Hassan Sheikh Mohamud called for stronger collaboration between Somalia and Kenya to defeat al-Shabab.

Odula reported from Nairobi, Kenya. Abdi Guled in Mogadishu, Somalia contributed to this report.

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