More than a dozen people have been shot, one woman has died and hundreds of shops were burned to the ground in this eastern Kenyan town amid rising Somali-Kenyan tensions, officials said Tuesday.
The violence follows a lethal attack here on Monday in which three Kenyan soldiers were killed. Local sympathizers of al-Shabab — a Somali Islamist extremist group that Kenyan troops are battling in Somalia — are suspected to be responsible for the soldiers' deaths, said military spokesman Col. Cyrus Oguna.
Witnesses in Garissa, where most of the population is ethnic Somali, said Kenyan troops responded to Monday's killings with force, opening fire at random. The town's main market was also torched by the soldiers, said the witnesses.
Oguna denied allegations that Kenya's military was involved in indiscriminate shooting and destruction of property. He said such reports are meant to antagonize local residents against the army.
The military camp in Garissa is a transit point for Kenyan troops being deployed to Somalia where they join African Union troops to fight the al-Shabab rebels.
The three officers killed were part of group five who had stopped at the camp on their way to Somalia. They were killed at a garage where they had gone to change their vehicle's punctured tire, said Oguna.
Dr. Musa Mohamed, a hospital administrator said 13 people were shot Tuesday. A witness said one woman had died. The Red Cross said nearly three dozen people have been injured. Kenya's defense minister, parliamentarians and community leaders toured Garissa later Tuesday to calm tensions.
Leaders from Garissa and surrounding areas condemned the violence and said it illustrated growing xenophobia against the Somali community in Kenya.
Former legislator Billow Kerrow said Somalis in Kenya have long been treated with suspicion by security forces and non-Somalis.
Somalis are perceived as a community that harbors and supports terrorist groups and criminals, he said. "Everybody in a community cannot be terrorists," he said.
He said suspicion against the Somali community in Kenya had increased since the country sent troops into Somalia.
"What is happening clearly shows there is xenophobia in the security forces ... and civilians," Kerrow said. He said the Somali community will consider of suing the individual officers who led the operation in Garissa.
Mohammed Shidiye, a former member of parliament, said ethnic Somalis no longer feel like Kenyan citizens because the community has been marginalized for decades.
"The government should clearly say whether we are citizens of this country. We are asking ourselves are we part of this state," he said.
The violence is the latest example of rising tensions between Somali-Kenyans and Kenyans with no ties to Somalia.
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. Sunday's bomb exploded in a bus in Eastleigh, where Nairobi's Somali community lives, killing nine people.
In response, angry mobs of Kenyans attacked the ethnic Somalis with stones and looted their homes. The Somalis defended themselves with machetes.
Strained relations between Kenyans and ethnic 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, angering many Kenyans.