NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Kenyan police fired bullets and tear gas in downtown Nairobi on Monday in an effort to stop rioters from fighting with ethnic Somalis one day after an improvised explosive device ripped through a bus and killed nine people.
The fighting exposes increasing tensions between the sizable ethnic Somali-Kenyan community and Kenyan groups with no ties to Somalia. Tensions have been rising over the last year as attackers have carried out a series of grenade and bomb attacks in Kenya, including several on Christian churches.
Strained relations with Kenyan-Somalis go back decades, to when post-colonial boundaries were drawn. But the most recent flare-up began in October 2011, when Kenya sent troops into Somalia to fight the terror group al-Shabab. After that deployment, al-Shabab threatened large-scale attacks in Kenya. Bomb and grenade attacks increased steadily.
Sunday's bomb attack ripped through a bus in Eastleigh, where Nairobi's Somali community lives, killing nine people. Sheik Mohammed Shakul, a spokesman for Muslim leaders, said such attacks are "barbaric and un-Islamic" and don't represent Muslims.
"This terrorist wants to disrupt the Muslim/Christian and multi-ethnic coexistence that we have enjoyed in this country. Unfortunately some people are falling into the trap that the terrorists have planned," Shakul said. "They want to cause a civil war between religions. Let's cool our emotions."
Tensions appear to be highest in and around the downtown neighborhood of Eastleigh, sometimes referred to as Little Somalia. Njau Kariuki, 50, runs a carpentry shop in Eastleigh, where he has lived for more than 25 years.
"People are angry. They are angry because of the people throwing bombs and grenades. They are blaming the Somalis. These Somalis are living with us but you cannot know their ways. They speak well and they will even make you laugh but in darkness they will stab you," he said.
Moses Ombati, Nairobi's police chief, confirmed the heavy suspicions between Kenya's communities. He said the attacks have "made people annoyed at whoever they imagined" carried out the attacks. He said three people are in custody over suspicions they took part in Sunday's attack.
Police reported two injuries in Monday's fighting, though an Associated Press reporter who saw ethnic Somalis stab a Kenyan and watched groups of young men hurl rocks at each other said it appeared likely more people were injured. Windows in homes and businesses were shattered during the hours-long street battles, and many buildings were looted.
Also Monday, the Kenya army reported that three of its soldiers were shot dead in northern Kenya by gunmen believed to have links with al-Shabab. Military spokesman Col. Cyrus Oguna said the three soldiers were part of the African Union force fighting al-Shabab in Somalia and had stopped over in the border town of Garissa on their way back into Somalia. He says the three were part of a group of five soldiers who had gone to a garage to change a punctured tire on their vehicle when seven gunmen attacked them. Two survived the attack.
Kenyan police in September said they disrupted a major terrorist attack in its final stages of planning after they found four suicide vests rigged with hundreds of metal ball bearings, two improvised explosive devices, four AK-47 assault rifles and 12 grenades in Eastleigh. Two ethnic Somalis have been charged in court.
Abdullahi Halakhe, a Horn of Africa analyst for the International Crisis Group, said such attacks and findings have led to a mindset among many Kenyans that all Somalis are terrorists. But he points out that many Kenyan-Somalis strongly disagree with al-Shabab. He worries the strained relations and increased violence could wreak havoc on the country's March presidential election.
"It's slowly getting out of hand," Halakhe said. "Since Kenya's intervention in Somalia last October there is a fair amount of profiling of Somalis from the security forces." He also noted that authorities have not definitively proven that al-Shabab has been behind the attacks.
Another aspect that adds to the tension is that Eastleigh is fairly prosperous compared to Kenyan slums that sit nearby. Many people blame the construction boom on Somali pirates who have laundered pirate ransom money into Kenyan construction. Halekhe, though, said that accusation comes without any real proof.
Many of Monday's rioters were jobless young Kenyans.
Associated Press reporter Jason Straziuso in Nairobi, Kenya contributed to this report.