Riots hit Kenya after Muslim cleric shot dead
MOMBASA, Kenya (Reuters) - Hundreds of protesters smashed cars and torched churches in the Kenyan city of Mombasa on Monday after unknown gunmen shot dead a Muslim cleric accused by the United States of helping Islamist militants in Somalia.
One protester was killed in the riots which erupted after Aboud Rogo Mohammed was shot on Monday, as youths from the port city's large Muslim population took to the streets saying he had been deliberately targeted by police.
"It's an attack on Muslims, and we will not take it lightly," said Suleiman Atham, one of the protesters.
Police denied having any involvement in the shooting which wounded Rogo's wife.
Deputy police chief Robert Kitur said Rogo - who faced terrorism charges over allegations he was recruiting non-Somali Africans for Somalia's al Shabaab militant group - was killed while driving in a private car.
"Unknown gunmen attacked his vehicle ... sprayed it with bullets and killed him on the spot," Kitur said. "They must have been targeting him, and must have been trailing him for a while."
In what police described as an act of impulse rather than a planned strategy to target Christians, protesters tried to burn down two churches, setting furniture on fire before the flames were extinguished. They vandalised at least four other churches, breaking chairs and damaging an altar.
Protesters also set alight a government vehicle, stoned cars along the main highway linking Mombasa to Malindi, both popular tourist destinations, and burned tyres to block the road.
Chanting slogans in Arabic, they smashed windscreens and headlamps while others looted shops.
Police fired teargas and rubber bullets in the air to disperse the protesters. One protester was killed after being hit by a stone on his head, Kipkemboi Rop, the Mombasa area police chief, said.
Later many shops were shuttered and streets usually thronging with shoppers and foreign tourists were deserted.
Police said Rogo had been arrested after they found firearms, ammunition and detonators in his house earlier this year. He was charged with planning acts of terrorism and released on bail during his trial which was still progressing when he was killed.
Washington imposed sanctions on financial transactions by Rogo over his alleged links to al Shabaab, and on five other individuals.
Police counted at least 15 holes on the driver's side of the car where Rogo was seated.
Protesters said they believed police shot him deliberately.
"These are police who have killed our innocent Sheikh. They have shot him dead. They imposed on him terrorism charges, arrested and charged him, now they fear the court will release him, and have decided to end his life," said Athman, one of the protesters.
The Muslim Human Rights Forum MHRF.L called it an "extra-judicial killing" and said another Mombasa-based Muslim preacher, Samir Hashim Khan, together with a blind colleague, Mohamed Bekhit Kassim, were abducted in April. Khan's badly mutilated body was found dumped at a national park near Mombasa and his colleague's whereabouts are unknown, they added.
Prime Minister Raila Odinga called for calm, and promised thorough investigations by the government.
Relations between Christians and Muslims have been relatively good in Kenya, and police chief Rop said he did not believe Monday's rioting would escalate into communal violence.
A Muslim cleric also described the attacks on the churches as "a spontaneous reaction".
"The Muslim youth who attacked those churches must have been thinking that the only person who killed Rogo was a non-Muslim and the immediate non-Muslims to them are the Christians. I see the attack as misplaced revenge," Sheikh Juma Ngao said.
Christian leaders however said the attacks could spark sectarian violence.
"Such attacks might cause sectarian conflicts which is not good for this country," said Bishop Florence Ndinda, a Mombasa Christian preacher at a press briefing after the meeting.
Tourist operators said they feared the violence could hit their business.
"It is too early to tell, but already the demonstrations are not good for us. They send a negative signal," said Mohammed Hersi, who runs the Whitesands Hotel, the largest resort on the coast. (Writing by James Macharia; Editing by Andrew Heavens)