MOMBASA, Kenya (Reuters) - Gunfire erupted in and around a mosque in the Kenyan port city of Mombasa on Sunday following a raid by armed police who had received a tip-off that Muslim youths were being radicalized and trained for militant attacks.
The raid sparked violent protests inside the Masjid Mussa mosque in the city’s run-down Majengo neighbourhood and in the surrounding streets. Police fired teargas and live rounds over the heads of taunting crowds, who hurled stones back.
Breaking up Islamist militant networks among its Muslim minority has become a priority for Kenya as it tries to end attacks by Somali militants and their sympathizers bent on punishing it for sending troops to fight al Shabaab rebels.
The cost of failure was laid bare when al Shabaab gunmen attacked a Nairobi shopping mall in September, killing at least 67 people. Western investigators said local militant networks helped the attackers carry out the assault.
“They attacked our mosque, but they’re not going to kill our spirit,” one youth shouted from behind a wall in the mosque’s compound. “Jihad is the way to go.”
More than four hours after the initial police swoop, gunshots continued to echo around the neighbourhood of ramshackle buildings and garbage-filled gutters.
Mombasa’s police chief Robert Kitur said the raid followed a tip off. When his officers burst into the mosque, where radical clerics regularly preach, they came under gunfire.
Kitur said ringleaders shielded themselves behind children and infants, the first time he had seen such a tactic used.
“We found them engaging in radicalization and training of youths,” Kitur told reporters close to the mosque as the operation went on.
Police seized black banners emblazoned with jihadi slogans, laptops and DVDs during the raid. Outside the mosque shoes, teargas canisters and spent bullet cartridges were strewn on the ground.
Many Muslims in Mombasa’s poorer neighborhoods feel marginalized by the predominantly Christian Nairobi government, while the forceful crackdown on Islamist militant recruitment networks in the tourist hub is fuelling resentment.
But Kenyan security officials say the Masjid Mussa mosque is a hotbed of militant activity, in particular recruitment into local Islamist networks and al Shabaab in Somalia.
Masked gunmen in August 2012 shot dead a firebrand cleric, Aboud Rogo, who often taught at the mosque and whom the United States and Kenya accused of recruiting and fundraising for the al Qaeda-linked Somali rebel group.
A year later, Rogo’s protege was gunned down in a strikingly similar attack. Both murders triggered violent unrest in the city.
Worshippers at the Masjid Mussa mosque accuse the security services of operating a death squad, a charge the police denies.
Kitur said the security forces had arrested more than 100 people during Sunday’s clashes and two officers had been wounded. One policeman was found sprawled in a pool of blood in a bathroom inside the mosque and was in critical condition.
“We found him locked up in a bathroom after we heard him groaning. It appears like they slaughtered him,” said one armed policeman who withheld his name.
Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Rosalind Russell