By James Macharia and Noor Ali
NAIROBI (Reuters) - Hundreds of people in northwest Kenya are fleeing fearing reprisals after security forces started a hunt for cattle raiders who massacred at least 32 police officers, residents and community leaders said on Tuesday.
Rustlers armed with machineguns and rocket propelled grenades killed the officers in a military-style ambush in the country's remote territory over the weekend - in what was described as the worst attack on police in Kenya's history.
Some unconfirmed media reports said up to 42 bodies had been recovered in the rugged Suguta valley.
Kenya's President Mwai Kibaki on Tuesday ordered police and troops to track down the attackers. "No part of this country can be a safe haven for bandits," he said in a statement.
Officials had blamed the killings on a group from the area's Turkana community who had stolen cattle from the Samburu tribe.
People started fleeing after trucks arrived with hundreds of officers from the Kenya Defence Forces, the paramilitary and regular police, residents told Reuters.
"The Turkanas are fleeing from Suguta area with their household goods, goats and cattle," said Peter Legerded, a shopkeeper from Baragoi town, near the site of the ambush.
Samburu elder Fabian Leresh said more than 3,000 members of the Turkana community had left Baragoi.
Clashes over cattle, land and water are common among the fringe tribes in Kenya, but many in the east African country were shocked by extent of the violence and the kind of weapons used.
The head of the country's police earlier on Tuesday said the force needed armored vehicles and a tactical re-think in the wake of the massacre.
"The policing of 1930s cannot work today where you are dealing with people who are armed, equally armed as the police officers," Police Commissioner Mathew Iteere told reporters referring to laws that governed police formed while Kenya was still a British colony.
"I think it is time to equip the police with armored vehicles so that they are better protected," he said at an airport in Nairobi, where the bodies were airlifted.
Further north and east of the site of the attack, Kenya shares porous borders with South Sudan, Ethiopia's Somali region and Somalia - territories awash with weapons and arms smugglers after decades of conflict.
Kenya's police are also facing new challenges on other fronts.
There is pressure to improve the force ahead of elections next March - the first since a disputed election in 2007 fuelled ethnic slaughter that killed more than 1,200 people and forced about 300,000 from their homes.
Fighters from Somalia's al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab rebels have launched a string of attacks in Kenya.
A senior police officer said some of the raiders were likely to be former members of the security forces, now working as mercenaries. Analysts called for an overhaul of the police force's training methods.
"The police were ill-prepared for this operation and lacked basic anti-ambush skills," said regional security analyst and former Kenyan army officer Imaana Laibuta.
(Additional reporting by Njuwa Maina and Humhprey Malalo; Editing by Yara Bayoumy and Andrew Heavens)