MOMBASA, Kenya (Reuters) - Kenyan police shot dead a Muslim cleric suspected of ties to Somalia’s al Shabaab militants in the city of Mombasa on Sunday, the latest in a string of raids against alleged sympathisers of the Islamist militants along the east African coast.
Local residents said gunfire erupted in the early hours when police broke into Omar Faraj’s house in the city’s rundown Majengo district, the same area where the radical preacher Aboud Rogo, shot dead in August by unknown gunmen, held sermons.
Riot police patrolled Majengo’s garbage-clogged streets and tensions ran high in the morning, raising fears of a repeat of the deadly rioting that broke out after Rogo’s killing.
Police said a man arrested on Saturday carrying grenades on a bus to Mombasa had led them to Faraj’s house. He was also killed by gunfire during the raid, police said, without explaining the exact circumstances.
Neighbours said they collected dozens of spent bullet cartridges and tear gas canisters.
“We have compelling reason to believe that the suspects had ties with a terrorist organisation. We are linking them with al Shabaab,” John Gachomo, deputy criminal investigation officer for Kenya’s Coast region, told Reuters.
He declined to give further details, saying two more suspects being held in custody were providing information.
The August clashes in Mombasa exposed the social, political and sectarian divides that run deep along the Swahili coastline, including across the border in Tanzania , and raised the spectre of more violence ahead of Kenya’s presidential election next year.
Kenya’s Muslims on the coast and in major urban areas have long complained they are marginalised by the predominantly Christian political class and are frequently the victims of heavy-handed policing by security forces.
“My brother was a peaceful man. He was humble and had no problem with anyone,” Faraj’s brother told reporters outside the mortuary as dozens of supporters chanted Islamic slogans.
Kenya’s poor Muslim neighbourhoods have proved fertile recruitment ground for al Shabaab, a Somalia-based Islamist militant group. Al Shabaab is seen as a serious threat to stability in east Africa even though the rebels are losing ground against a military offensive in Somalia.
There has been a surge in grenade and gun attacks along the coast, in Nairobi and on the border with Somalia since Kenya sent troops into the Horn of Africa country to help crush the al Shabaab rebellion.
Salim Japher Salim, who heads the Forum for Islam Unity in Mombasa denied Faraj was a “terrorist”.
“This deliberate attack on Muslims is unacceptable. It is provocation and whatever happens after this, it will be entirely the government to blame,” Salim said.
During Sunday’s raid, police said they recovered a pistol, binoculars and a GPS locating device.