By Edith Honan
KISUMU, Kenya (Reuters) - Governors of Kenyan regions near the border with Somalia say they are encouraging new ways for residents who do not trust the police to report local Islamist cells and sympathizers, shifting strategy since the deadly Garissa university attack this month.
Attacks by Somali Islamist group al Shabaab in Kenya, including the April 2 Garissa raid that killed 148 people, have led to renewed efforts to improve ties between the security forces and the ethnic Somali population who often regard them with suspicion.
Diplomats and activists have said mass arrests and other tough tactics commonly used have alienated Muslim communities, discouraging them from sharing vital intelligence to help Kenya thwart attacks.
Governors of the northern regions of Garissa, Mandera and Wajir have held a series of meetings with elders, religious leaders and women's groups to encourage them to talk to any official they trust and not just security officials, usually advertised by the authorities as the first point of contact.
"This is a strategy that we thought of adopting as a way of removing the fear factor," Wajir Governor Ahmed Abdullahi told Reuters on the sidelines of a conference in the western Kenyan city of Kisumu. "Even at our meetings, people have been coming up to us to say, 'My kid has been missing.'"
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has said al Shabaab is "deeply embedded" in Kenyan towns, and his government has said it would consider an amnesty to Kenyans who leave the group.
One of the four Garissa attackers has been identified as a promising former law student in the capital Nairobi. Months before the attack, his father reported he might have joined al Shabaab, but it is not clear that any action was taken.
Kenya set up county governments for the first time two years ago, under a policy known as devolution. The governors now say their constituents may feel more comfortable approaching local leaders than security forces they blame for mistreatment.
County officials declined to say how many tips they have received, but there have been multiple reports of arrests of individuals since the university attack.
"The issue of distrust between national government security and the public is there. At every forum we have gone to, they have shared it very broadly," said Mandera Governor Ali Roba, whose region witnessed two attacks in November that killed dozens.
"But we have told them: you either share this information or risk perishing as a society."
(Editing by Edmund Blair and Mark Trevelyan)