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147 Killed at Kenyan University, Deadliest Al-Shabab Attack Since Kenya’s 2011 Invasion of Somalia

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In Kenya, officials say at least 147 people, mostly students, were killed when al-Shabab militants stormed a university in Garissa, making it the worst attack on Kenyan soil since the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy. Al-Shabab militants reportedly went through the university dorms, separating Muslims from Christians and killing the Christians. The Kenyan government said at least 79 people were wounded in the assault. The siege lasted about 15 hours before security forces killed four militants. Al-Shabab has carried out a series of attacks inside Kenya following Kenya’s 2011 invasion of Somalia. We speak to Leslie Lefkow, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Africa Division.

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JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to Kenya, where officials say 147 students were killed when al-Shabab militants stormed a university in Garissa, making it the worst attack on Kenyan soil since the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy. Al-Shabab militants reportedly went through the university dorms, separating Muslims from Christians and killing the Christians. The Kenyan government said at least 79 people were wounded in the assault. The siege lasted about 15 hours, before security forces killed four militants.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by Leslie Lefkow. She’s deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Africa Division, joining us via Democracy Now! video stream from Amsterdam.

Leslie, can you tell us what you know at this point? What happened in Kenya?

LESLIE LEFKOW: Well, we understand at about 5:30 in the morning, a group of attackers stormed the campus of Garissa University College. And this was early enough so that most of the students were either at prayer or they were still sleeping in their beds. And they took a number of people hostage in one of the buildings and held onto them, held onto the building for most of the day. By the end of the day, by last night, the government confirmed that at least 147 people were dead and that the attackers had also been killed. We understand today that that death toll is very likely to rise. We are hearing reports of at least 170 people dead from this horrific attack.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Leslie Lefkow, this is now the worst of several attacks that have been occurring recently from al-Shabab into Kenya. Could you talk about the roots of this?

LESLIE LEFKOW: Yeah. I mean, we’ve seen insecurity in this region around Garissa. Garissa is located in the north of Kenya, in its northeast province. It’s a region of Kenya that’s largely populated by ethnic Somalis, Kenyan citizens but of Somali ethnicity. And this region has experienced a number of attacks, small-scale attacks, previously. What we’ve seen over the last couple of years, though, is a dramatic intensification in the size and scale of the attacks launched by al-Shabab in Kenya.

These largely date back to 2011, when the Kenyan military deployed in Somalia, and al-Shabab warned that that deployment would have an impact in Kenya and that they would try to mount attacks. And so far, they have mounted a number of very serious attacks. There was the attack on Westgate Mall, a very affluent shopping mall in Nairobi in 2013. And there were two attacks just about six months ago, also in the northeast region, that killed more than 60 people, an attack on a bus and an attack on quarry workers in a place called Mandera.

So, we are seeing a real serious increase in both the number and the scale of these attacks and the numbers of civilians killed. And I think that’s another part of the pattern that needs to be pointed out. These attacks are clearly targeting civilians. This attack yesterday in Garissa targeted a university. The bulk of the victims seem to have been students from around Kenya. And the al-Shabab is—they state that they spare Muslims, and yet there’s a certain irony to this, because, of course, within Somalia, al-Shabab is routinely attacking civilians, all of whom are Muslim.

AMY GOODMAN: Leslie Lefkow, President Obama is scheduled to go to Kenya this summer. Can you talk about the significance of this and what Human Rights Watch is calling for right now?

LESLIE LEFKOW: President Obama’s visit in July has been, I think, long in the making. And it’s an important opportunity, because while on the one hand we’re seeing clearly that Kenya has a security crisis, the other part of the problem is the way that the Kenyan government has been addressing this security crisis. After many of these attacks, we’ve seen very abusive operations by the Kenyan security forces, targeting ethnic Somali and Muslim communities, rounding up people, beating them, sometimes torturing them systematically. And these kinds of abuses are not only a problem, you know, simply in human rights terms for the people affected, but they are also contributing to Kenya’s security crisis. And this links back to President Obama’s visit, because the United States, of course, is a very important partner for Kenya on security and on a whole range of issues. And President Obama’s visit, of course, is a prime opportunity for the U.S. government to be stressing that human rights must be guiding the response to the security crisis and that there is no contradiction between maintaining security and improving security and protecting the human rights of Kenyan citizens.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And is it your sense, not just in Kenya, but in other parts of Africa, that sectarian violence is increasing?

LESLIE LEFKOW: Well, I think there are certainly groups that are increasingly trying to widen fissures between ethnic and religious groups. I think we see that in Nigeria. I think we certainly see that in Kenya. Al-Shabab is trying to exploit latent tensions between communities in Kenya, and I think that the way the government has responded so far is not countering this effort. In some ways, al-Shabab is exploiting these differences. And instead of showing—

AMY GOODMAN: Leslie Lefkow, we’re going to have to leave it there, but I thank you very much for being with us, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Africa Division. We’ll link to your report in 2014 that looked at killings and disappearances by anti-terror police in Kenya.

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