MOMBASA, Kenya (Reuters) - Young Muslims set fire to a church, burned tires and clashed with police in Kenya’s main port city of Mombasa on Friday, leaving at least four people dead after the killing of an Islamic cleric which his followers blamed on security forces.
The shooting of Sheikh Ibrahim Omar ignited religious tensions in the commercial and tourism hub, two weeks after Islamist militants killed at least 67 people in a raid on a Nairobi shopping mall.
The imam and three other men were found dead in a car on Mombasa’s outskirts on Thursday night, police said. Television images showed the vehicle sprayed with bullet holes.
Police dismissed allegations by Omar’s associates and people who attended his mosque that the shooting was part of a crackdown on Muslims after the mall attack or any wider campaign.
Riot police fired gunshots and teargas to break up the rioters who had set alight a Salvation Army church and blocked a main road, a Reuters witness said.
The Kenyan Red Cross said four people had died, all with gunshot wounds.
The worst of the running battles with police took place in Mombasa’s downtrodden Saba Saba neighborhood, where traders shuttered their shops and residents fled for safety. An uneasy calm fell over Mombasa three hours after the clashes began.
Omar was killed on the main road to the resort town of Malindi, a few hundred meters (yards) from where another firebrand cleric, Aboud Rogo, was shot dead in his vehicle in August 2012 in a strikingly similar attack.
Al-Amin Kimathi, head of the Muslim Human Rights Forum, said the police were exploiting public anger over Westgate as a cover to extend what he believed was a campaign of killings.
“It is a continuation of what has been happening,” said Kimathi.
Police spokeswoman Zipporah Mboroki said there was “no truth” to the accusations of a wider campaign.
Mombasa county police chief Robert Kitur dismissed accusations of police involvement In Omar’s killing. “The police have nothing to do with the shooting. That’s not how we operate,” he told reporters.
The United States and Kenya had accused Rogo of recruiting and fund-raising for Somalia’s al-Qaeda-linked al Shabaab militants - the group that claimed responsibility for last month’s mall raid.
Moderate Muslim leaders in Kenya said Omar had studied under Rogo and was nicknamed ‘Rogo junior’ after he publicly espoused the same hardline ideology of his former mentor.
Both imams were popular among youths in Mombasa and along Kenya’s Indian Ocean coastline where many Muslims feel marginalized by the predominantly Christian government.
Rogo’s death last year unleashed deadly riots in Mombasa.
The assault on the Westgate mall was the worst militant strike on Kenyan soil since al Qaeda bombed the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi in 1998. The raid shocked Kenyans and the world and has raised questions over intelligence failures.
“They (authorities) have panicked because of their own laxity which killed Kenyans at Westgate. Now they are trying to save face by sacrificing innocent Muslims ... We are not going to take this lightly,” said Hatib Suleiman, 21, who prays at Omar’s Masjid Mussa mosque.
Additional reporting by Drazen Jorgic and Richard Lough in Nairobi; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by James Macharia and Andrew Heavens