Joseph Akwiri/ Reuters
MOMBASA, Kenya (Reuters) – Kenyan anti-riot police clashed with stone-throwing youths in the port city of Mombasa on Tuesday in a second day of violence ignited by the killing of a Muslim cleric accused by the United States of helping Islamist militants in Somalia.
Police fired tear gas and warning shots as youths barricaded streets with burning tires in the predominantly Muslim Majengo neighborhood. Mobs marauded around Mombasa’s city center, taunting police who arrested some of the protesters.
Shopkeepers reported looting in some areas of Kenya’s second biggest city, a tourist hub with a major Indian Ocean port.
“People are breaking into our shops and looting our property and police are doing nothing,” said Francis Mutua, 33, a kiosk owner who said he and his colleagues had beaten up offender.
Shopkeeper Kassim Ali also complained about police as they cleared a smoldering roadblock nearby. “These people, the police, are joking. They are taking this thing lightly, but the way I see it, it will not be good,” he said.
One person was killed in riots on Monday when protesters torched some churches, stoking fears that the unrest may become more sectarian in a city where grenade attacks blamed on Somali militants and their sympathizers have already strained Muslim-Christian relations. Mombasa has a big Muslim minority.
Police and Muslim leaders had described the church burnings as impulsive, not premeditated. On Tuesday the gangs of youths appeared to focus their anger more on the police.
Church leaders scrapped plans for a peaceful march for fear it might incite further clashes in a country where overall relations with minority Muslims have been relatively good.
The unrest began after gunmen killed Muslim cleric Aboud Rogo on Monday, spraying his car with bullets in an attack many Muslims in Mombasa blamed on the police, who denied involvement.
Washington and Nairobi had both accused the preacher of helping al Shabaab, Somalia’s Islamist rebel group.
The al Qaeda-linked militant group urged Kenyan Muslims on Tuesday to protect their religion at all costs and boycott next year’s presidential election. It condemned what it called a “witch-hunt” against Muslims by the Kenyan authorities.
“Muslims must take the matter into their own hands, stand united against the Kuffar (non-believers) and take all necessary measures to protect their religion, their honor, their property and their lives from the enemies of Islam,” al Shabaab said in a statement posted on the social media site Twitter.
The violence could worsen if it taps into long-standing local grievances over land ownership and unemployment, as well as calls by the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) for the coastal strip to secede. The MRC said it was not involved in the unrest.
Prolonged trouble in Mombasa would hit Kenya’s vital tourism industry, already damaged by the kidnappings of Western women tourists from beach resorts by Somali gunmen.
“Right now we have closed all our tourists in the hotels. We can’t take them on safaris, we can’t take them on tours of cultural sights … because it is unsafe,” said Titus Kangangi, owner of the Platinum hotel just north of Mombasa.
Mohammed Hersi, who runs the Whitesands Hotel, the largest resort on the coast, said tourists were worried. “It’s tricky to even take them or pick them from the airport because the main highway from the airport is the epicenter of the chaos.”
The unrest could also knock trade and transport to Kenya’s landlocked neighbors. Rwanda and Uganda rely on Mombasa port for imports of food, consumer goods and fuel.
(Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by James Macharia and Alistair Lyon)