NAIROBI (Reuters) - In the shabby “Little Mogadishu” quarter of Kenya’s capital, Somalis feared the militant attack on a Nairobi shopping mall could trigger a violent backlash against them.
Islamist group al Shabaab said it carried out the raid on the Westgate center, that killed at least 59 people, in revenge for Kenya’s military campaign against its fighters in Somalia.
In the congested Eastleigh neighborhood, memories were still fresh of the mobs who targeted homes and shops in November after a suspected al Shabaab attack on a minibus killed nine.
“A mob of youths can ... attack us like last time,” said Mohamed Warsame, sitting next to a stall selling “khat” leaves, which are chewed as a stimulant across the Horn of Africa.
The elderly man said he expected the police would at least mount more raids to round up illegal immigrants and suspected militants.
Groups of Somali men talked in hushed tones and at one electronics shop, the owner changed channel to switch from the live coverage of the mall assault drama to a tennis match.
“I don’t think those people who attacked the mall are true Muslims. Islam does not support killing of the innocent. Anyone who kills an innocent person has killed humanity,” said a woman in her 40s who would only gave her first name, Zuleka.
She said she had lived in Kenya for more than a decade, one of thousands of ethnic Somalis who have fled years of war and turmoil to seek a better life in east Africa’s biggest economy.
A shoe seller who declined to give his name said the Westgate mall raiders were bringing Somalia’s war to Kenya. “The reason we’re here is because of such people who have invaded our country (Somalia),” he told Reuters.
“Now they’re coming here to make our lives miserable.”
There are also concerns Saturday’s attack will badly dent tourism and investment in Kenya.
“This will be bad for business here. Some of the shops here will have to close,” said Farrah Abdi, an 19-year-old ethnic Somali and a mobile phone shop attendant in Eastleigh. He said he was born there and had never been to Somalia.
“I consider myself more of a Kenyan ... My whole life is here.”
The Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims condemned the raid on the mall as a “heinous terror attack” and called for Kenyans not to divide along sectarian lines.
Somalia’s ambassador, Mohamed Ali Nur, appealed to Kenyans not to target Somalis. He told Citizen TV he was about to attend a funeral of the wife of a Somali killed in the mall attack.
“Here in Kenya we have Somali citizens who live here, as refugees, business people, students. We do not want them to be harmed in anyway ... I want to repeat that Kenya and Somalia are together in this, we should not be separated,” he said.
Muslims make up barely 11 percent of Kenya’s 40-million strong population which is made up of a patchwork of ethnic groups.
But Islam has long been the predominant religion along its eastern coast - and there have been sporadic outbursts of sectarian violence in the port city of Mombasa.
There have been attacks against Christian churches and police, some blamed on an outlawed coastal group, the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), which wants to secede from Kenya.
Coastal Muslims complain that they have lost land and jobs to settlers from inland, while seeing little of the wealth generated by tourism on their beaches and traffic at their port, which serves most of east and central Africa.
Police trucks filled with armed officers patrolled major Mombasa streets on Sunday, while local politicians and religious leaders appealed for Kenyans of all faiths to stay calm.
“This is an attempt to drive a wedge between Muslims and other religious groups in Kenya, but we want to tell those terrorists that we are brighter and aware of their intentions, and that we will not succumb,” Mombasa senator Hassan Omar said.
Anglican Bishop Julius Kalu, speaking during a Sunday service in Mombasa, called for unity and prayers.
“We have seen the devil in his true colors. Our faith as Kenyans has been tested,” he said. “Let us unite as a Kenyan family in this grief, regardless of our religious affiliations.”
Additional reporting by Edmund Blair in Nairobi, Joseph Akwiri in Mombasa and Stella Mapenzuaswa in Johannesburg; Writing by Pascal Fletcher and Edmund Blair