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Students protest Kenya’s slow response to college attack

March through streets of capital seeking answers

Kenyans attended a candlelight vigil Tuesday for the 148 victims of the deadly attackDAI KUROKAWA/EUROPEAN PRESS PHOTO AGENCY/EPA

NAIROBI— Public anger spilled into the streets of the Kenyan capital Tuesday, a fury stirred by the seven-hour delay between the time authorities learned of a deadly attack by gunmen on a college and when police commandos finally arrived at the scene.

Authorities were informed of the assault just before dawn Thursday at Garissa University College in northeastern Kenya, where four militants killed 148 people before being slain by police in the early evening.

Questions have arisen that the police delay could have contributed to the high death toll as the country confronts the threat from the Islamic extremists from the Somalia-based Al Shabab militant group.


During a demonstration by about 250 students, they passed a truck carrying security forces with red berets and rifles and shouted at the troops: ‘‘Where were you?’’

The troops did not respond.

The students also banged on a police vehicle and converged briefly outside Kenyan police headquarters, again demanding: ‘‘Where were you?’’

The Kenyan military, which has a barracks in the town of Garissa, was the first to respond with some help from local police, the government has said. The police department’s paramilitary tactical unit, known as the Recce Squad, was briefed about the attack but put on standby because the military said it could handle the attack, said a police officer who was involved in Thursday’s actions.

It was only after hours had gone by and the military had suffered casualties that a decision was made to send in the Recce unit, which is trained in close-quarters combat and hostage rescues and is based in Nairobi, he said. The official spoke only on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the press.

Military spokesman Colonel David Obonyo did not answer phone calls seeking comment.

With police helicopters not operational because of mechanical problems, the Recce Squad flew the 200 miles to Garissa on two planes that could not carry the whole unit, forcing other members to travel by road.


Once the tactical team went into the besieged campus at 5 p.m. — almost 12 hours after the attack began — its members killed the gunmen and secured the site within a half-hour. By then, 148 people were dead.

Kenya has vowed severe retaliation against Al Shabab, and its military on Monday announced it had carried out airstrikes on camps in Somalia.

The lack of a coordinated response to an extremist attack also plagued Kenya’s security forces after Al Shabab struck Nairobi’s Westgate Mall in September 2013, killing 67 people.

The army stormed the mall without checking with the Recce unit, whose members had already infiltrated the site and were closing in on the attackers. That led to a friendly fire incident that killed one Recce officer and forced the elite police team to withdraw.

‘‘We have refused to learn from the Westgate attack. What was the Kenyan army doing for seven hours before the Recce team came in? Were they just hanging about? We saw KDF [the Kenyan army] camping outside of the university as the killing went on,’’ said Patrick Gathara, a commentator and political cartoonist.

Inter-service rivalries may also be playing a role in coordinating responses to extremist attacks, and security officials also complain of corruption and a lack of funding. A government commission looked into the procurement of the grounded police helicopters, suspected fraud and recommended an audit of their purchase.


‘‘The systemic corruption that afflicts all our institutions infects our security services, too. This continues to be the dead weight our efforts against terrorism have to carry,’’ said Kenyan corruption expert John Githongo, visiting scholar at Stanford University.