MKOKONI, Kenya (Reuters) - The night-time attack against a British tourist couple at an elite Indian Ocean resort in northern Kenya has left village residents wondering how they will make ends meet with a ruined tourism season.
Boasting sparkling turquoise waters and pristine white sands, the Lamu archipelago on the Kenyan coast near the Somali border attracts thousands of tourists, the majority of whom are from Britain, every year.
Residents in Lamu town and on the nearby main islands mostly make their living off fishing, working in hotel resorts, ferrying tourists to and from the mainland on speedboats or dhows for diving and snorkelling expeditions.
But after gunmen killed a British man and kidnapped his wife at Kiwayu Safari Village in the Kiunga Marine National Reserve, north of Lamu, many fear their work will come to a stop.
“It will affect us. Most of us are employed in hotels — the tourists will not ... the hotels will close,” said a man who gave his name as Dash, a maize farmer in Mkokoni village, some 5 kilometres (three miles) away from Kiwayu. “If there is no business, there is no income.”
Many questions still remain unanswered over the attack - how the gunmen managed to enter the resort unhindered, how they knew there was only one couple staying at the high-end resort and how they managed to shoot the man, grab his wife and whisk her away on a speedboat.
At the resort island, lined with palm-roofed huts sectioned off with plants, the only indication something had happened came from the yellow police tape separating the huts from the shore. Some local security men, or askaris, refused to let journalists enter the area.
Kenyan police said they were treating the raid as banditry for now and could not say for sure whether the gunmen had come from nearly Somalia.
The islands have had trouble with Somali bandits in the past. Gerald Johnson, the owner of the Kiwayu Safari Village between 1984-1995, said that in the 1960s Somali bandits attacked some islands, forcing villagers to evacuate.
“Historically there’s been a lot of trouble with them (Somalis) because they’re a wild bunch.”
Mohamed Bwanaheri, the Imam at Zahra mosque in Mkokoni, a village of about 600 people, recalled the troubled past: “The community here is now worried they will come back and take our wives and daughters,” he said.
Bwanaheri said hotel employees he had been in contact with told him Kenyan police with sniffer dogs came by helicopter on Sunday and traced footprints all the way to the shore, indicating they could be Somali pirates.
“We heard they were people from Somalia,” Bwanaheri said.
Authorities, who at first were wary of publicly saying Somali pirates could be responsible, admitted it was now looking more likely.
“We do suspect that the gunmen, may by now have disappeared into Somalia. This is a disturbing possibility,” the director of Kenya’s Criminal Investigation Department, Ndegwa Muhoro, said.
Arif Ahmed, a 28-year-old native of Lamu who ferries tourists to and from the mainland, is also convinced the attack bore the hallmarks of Somali pirates.
Last year, as he brought two British tourists back from the Somali coast after buying barracuda, Ahmed said eight Somali pirates on a speedboat stopped his vessel near Kiunga, a main Kenya-Somali border area.
“Four had AK-47s, one had a grenade. They asked if I was Muslim and then they took 20 litres of petrol. It’s Somali pirates, because this is their trade. They hijack ships for oil, petrol, food,” Ahmed said.
Ahmed said he was also worried about business. During the October-December high-season, he makes up to 100,000 shillings.
“Now they will come to Lamu but won’t go any further because of the travel warning,” he said.
Johnson, who now runs a floating bar in Lamu, also lamented the attack.
“Kenyan police have said they will base an army unit on Kiwayu, so it’ll probably be the safest camp in all of Africa. But that won’t alter people’s perceptions.”
Tourism earned a record 74 billion shillings in the whole of 2010, making it one of the country’s leading sources of foreign exchange.
Additional reporting by Caroline Mango in Mombasa; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by George Obulutsa