NAIROBI — Deadly riots broke out in the coastal city of Mombasa on Friday morning after a popular but controversial Muslim cleric was fatally shot in what his followers said they believed was an attack by state security services.
Four people were confirmed dead and seven injured in the unrest, according to the Kenya Red Cross, and a church was set ablaze. The violence unleashed bubbling religious tensions in the wake of the terrorist attack last month on a shopping mall in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, that left more than 60 people dead and investigators grasping for answers.
The cleric, Sheik Ibrahim Ismail, was killed Thursday night along with three others when their car was sprayed with bullets as they drove along Mombasa’s palm-fringed coastal highway. Ismail’s predecessor, Sheik Aboud Rogo Mohammed, a radical cleric, was killed last year in similar circumstances. Rogo had been linked to Al Shabab, the Somali Islamist militant group behind the Nairobi mall attack.
By late Friday morning, after prayer services, Muslim youths were pouring out of the mosque where Ismail had preached, throwing together makeshift furniture barricades in the streets, according to witnesses reached by telephone. Security personnel in helmets and protective vests tried to contain the rioting.
But demonstrators smashed windows, left tires burning in the street, and hurled stones at police officers in running street battles, television footage showed. Black smoke rose from the white Salvation Army church. Footage showed several officers huddled behind an auto rickshaw, seeking cover from rioters, some with red-and-white scarves wrapped around their faces.
The situation in the country since the mall attack remains tense. Witnesses have said that one or more of the attackers may have escaped, and fears of a follow-up assault are running high. Muslims, both Somalis from the country’s large diaspora and native Kenyans, have been bracing for reprisal attacks.
On Friday, the police said no one had been arrested in the killings of the sheik and the others in the car. “Right now, the area is calm,” said a Kenyan police spokeswoman in Nairobi, Zipporah Mboroki. “We are investigating the cause of the shooting.”
The Kenyan authorities this week urged calm in the wake of the Nairobi attack, and called particularly for Kenyan Muslims and non-Muslims to stay united. Muslims were among the dead in the attack on the mall, as well as among the rescuers hailed here as heroes. But the attackers allowed some Muslims to leave unharmed, in what may have been in part an attempt to sow dissent.
Followers of Ismail said they believed that the killings were political, and that his death was the beginning of the feared retribution against Muslims after the mall siege.
“The police are killing people while saying it is a war against terrorism; this is a war against Islam,” said another radical cleric, Abubaker Shariff Ahmed, according to Agence France-Presse. He called Ismail’s killing an “outright execution.”