Kenyan Muslims help protect Christians after church attacks
Following lethal attacks on two Kenyan churches, community leaders are stepping up efforts to stop their country from falling victim to the internecine religious bloodshed that has plagued many other Africa countries with mixed populations.
Young Muslim men will soon begin patrolling the estimated 30 churches in the east Kenyan town of Garissa, where masked gunmen killed 17 Christian worshippers with assault rifles and grenades in twin attacks on Sunday.
Adan Wachu, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Kenyan Muslims, said Christian and Muslim volunteers will unite to protect places of prayer across Kenya's most religiously-divided regions.
"This is Kenya. This is not Nigeria, Somalia or Afghanistan," Wachu told dpa. "We are not going to have a religious confrontation in this country. This is purely the figment of a few disgruntled elements who are out to catapult tensions between Muslims (and) Christians."
Kenya has suffered a spate of bomb, grenade and gun attacks since it sent troops into southern Somalia last year, in a bid to defeat the Islamist militia al-Shabaab, which has been waging an insurgency against the weak central government in Mogadishu since 2007.
The dual raids on the churches in Garissa were more coordinated than previous attacks and were the deadliest that Kenya has seen since a 2002 suicide bombing at an Israeli-owned hotel in the coastal city of Mombasa, in which 18 people died.
Some Kenyans fear that their country will see more brutal attacks in the style of Boko Haram, the Nigerian Islamist militant group that targets churches in a country that is split between a largely-Muslim north and a predominately-Christian south.
Hassan Omar, a lawyer and former member of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, said he hoped that Kenya "will not go the Boko Haram way".
"Whoever was behind these attacks was quite deliberate in trying to ensure there is some kind of religious fallout in Kenya," he told dpa.
"We are aware of the gravity of the attacks, but we are also conscious that we don't want our country to drift into sectarian violence," says Omar.
Prime Minister Raila Odinga has blamed the killings on al-Shabaab, which has links to Al-Qaeda, and voiced concern that Somalia's Islamist insurgents "could link up with other terrorist groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria".
Police in the garrison town of Garissa have so far interrogated about 30 people, split evenly between ethnic Somalis and other Kenyan Muslims.
The region's deputy police chief, Philip Ndolo, described the suspects as "sympathisers of al-Shabaab".
While Muslims are the majority in Garissa and other parts of eastern Kenya, they account for only about 10 per cent of the population in a mostly-Christian country of 43 million.
Tina Soria, an analyst for London-based think tank the Royal United Services Institute, said the Kenyan church raids may represent a shift in al-Shabaab's tactics, in an effort to stir up religious tensions in the East African country.
"If al-Shabaab are behind the attacks, as we believe, they are trying to differentiate their targets and become more unpredictable, making it more difficult for the Kenyan authorities to predict where they will strike next," she told dpa.
The terrorism expert also predicted more attacks on shopping malls that are frequented by foreigners, and warned of growing co-operation between al-Shabaab, Boko Haram and other African militant Islamist organisations.
"There is evidence that these groups have shared bomb-making and operational expertise and even exchanged experts in order to train their respective fighters," Soria said.
Last month, the head of the United States Africa Command, General Carter Ham, said Washington was boosting its presence on the continent to counter the danger of various Islamist groups in different countries working together.
For Omar, the human rights lawyer, Garissa's church attackers probably hail from a group of disaffected young men who cannot find jobs in Kenya, where almost half the population lives below the poverty line.
"This kind of violence comes from the general frustration that young people face in Africa. This has manifested itself in different ways, such as the post-election violence and the criminal gangs in Kenya," he said.
"Now, some are acquiring a skewed formulation of ideology that supports these acts of violence."