MOMBASA, Kenya (AP) – Police opened fire on Muslim youths wielding daggers at a mosque linked to recruiting Islamic extremists, and at least one officer and a young man were killed Sunday, witnesses and officials said in the coastal resort and port city of Mombasa.
Police said they raided the Masjid Musa mosque acting on intelligence that a meeting to recruit militants was going on.
A reporter at the scene saw police shoot and kill one person as they tried to disperse a growing crowd screaming “Allahu Akbar” or “God is Great” outside the mosque, which has been the recent site of violent confrontations between young Muslims and police.
A police officer who was stabbed in the face died of his wounds, said Mombasa police commander Robert Kitur. Another officer was stabbed in the stomach and is being treated at the hospital, he said.
Police later occupied the mosque and its precincts, Kitur said.
“We have arrested dozens of youths who attacked our officers while on duty at the mosque and they are under interrogation,” he said. They also recovered a gun stolen from an officer.
Kitur said the officers were “on a mission to remove radical paraphernalia from the mosque when they faced resistance.”
Henry Ondieki, the Mombasa chief of criminal investigations, said police forcibly entered the mosque after getting intelligence that a meeting to recruit militants was underway. “This was not a normal day of prayers,” he said. “Their intention was clear: they were planning to recruit and attack innocent Kenyan civilians.”
But the head of a Mombasa-based rights group criticized the police.
“There was no need for excessive force and the police should have restrained themselves to avoid bloodshed,” said Khalid Hussein, executive director of Haki Africa. He said it came the day after they asked police to avoid violence and talk to the youth.
“We condemn strongly the move by police to cause violence inside a place of worship,” Hussein said.
Kenyan police have linked the Masjid Musa mosque to recruitment of militants for Somalia’s al-Shabab terrorist organization, which claimed responsibility for an attack last year on an upscale shopping mall in which up to 67 people were killed in Nairobi, the capital. The al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab group said that attack was in retaliation for Kenya’s military involvement in Somalia.
Rights campaigners say the Kenyan government’s harsh counterterrorism measures are pushing some Muslim youths toward extremism.
A Human Rights Watch researcher reported last year that many Somalis who have fled to Kenya because of al-Shabab violence have sometimes faced “serious abuses” at the hands of security forces who wrongfully accuse them of supporting al-Shabab.
Last October, following the mall attack, gunmen killed a Muslim cleric and three others in a hail of bullets in Mombasa, sparking street violence by youths who accused the police of targeted killings of Muslim leaders.
The Masjid Musa mosque has produced terror-linked Muslim preachers including Aboud Rogo Mohammed, who was shot and killed by unknown gunmen in Mombasa as he drove his wife to a hospital in Aug. 2012. The death sparked two days of rioting in which four people, including three members of the security forces, were killed and three churches were damaged in Mombasa. Hundreds of angry young Muslims who took to the streets blamed police for the killing of Mohammed, who had been sanctioned by the U.N. and U.S. for supporting al-Shabab. A Kenyan government task force did not establish who killed Mohammed.