Christians of Joy Jesus Church seen after the attack. Photo: Robert Alai via Twitter
MOMBASA, KENYA (BosNewsLife)-- Suspected Islamic militants burst into a crowded church near the Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa on Sunday, March 23, killing as many as four people and injuring 17 others, local Christians and officials said.
Witnesses said at least two gunmen began shooting indiscriminately after interrupting Sunday's worship service of the Joy Jesus Church congregation in Likoni, located across a deep-water channel from Mombasa city.
Blood-spattered Bibles and overturned plastic chairs were seen across the church's floor after what locals called a "terrorist attack".
Lilian Omondi, who was leading a prayer recital at the time, told reporters that the attackers "carried big guns and began shooting" everywhere. "I fell to the ground and could hear screams."
The Interior Ministry said police were 100 meters (yards) away during the shooting and "responded swiftly" but that the gunmen escaped.
Likoni's police chief Robert Mureithi told media that the gunmen were apparently armed with automatic weapons.
The attackers tried to raid a second church nearby but fled when armed police on patrol in the area appeared, he said. "This has all the indicators of a terrorist attack because the attackers did not steal anything and appeared focused on killing," Mureithi told reporters.
Two people were killed at the church and two people died of gunshot wounds in hospital, the Kenyan Red Cross said.
At Mombasa's main hospital doctors handed reporters x-rays showing bullets lodged in the skulls of a two-year-old boy, whose mother was killed, and a male adult they were treating, Reuters news agency reported.
Sunday's raid added to concerns over rising Islamic extremism in Kenya, East Africa's largest economy.
There was no immediate claim of resonsibility, but Kenya has been hit by a series of attacks carried out by Islamic militants since sending troops into nearby southern Somalia in October 2011 to battle al-Shabab, linked to terror group al-Qaida.
Al-Shabab has condemned Christianity and fights for an Islamic state. In September al-Shabab fighters killed at least 67 people in Nairobi's Westgate mall.
Additionally, Kenya has suffered dozens of small attacks, many on churches, over the last several years. Muslim-Christian tensions on Kenya's coast are high, according to rights investigators and government officials.
Kenyan security officials say the Indian Ocean coastline has become a hotbed of radicalisation. "Terrorism continues to grow in shape, colour and behaviour and when it assumes the phase of radicalisation ... it will be met (with) full force," Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku reportedly said in Mombasa on Saturday, March 22.
Sunday's attack came about a week after police on the coast reportedly intercepted a car packed with explosives that police believe were to be used for an attack.
In a reaction, advocacy group International Christian Concern (ICC) said the attack underscored concerns over a lack of security in the country.
"The ruthless attack on a church, as men, women, and children were gathered simply to worship God, reveals the hatefulness and emptiness of the ideology that motivates these terrorist groups," ICC Regional Manager Todd Daniels told BosNewsLife
"The Kenyan military and security forces must continue their efforts to root out terrorist groups and provide protection to their civilians."
He said his group has offered "prayers and condolences to the people of Kenya and, specifically, the families of those injured or killed in this attack."