(Reuters) – Somali al Shabaab Islamist militants killed 36 non-Muslim workers at a quarry in northeast Kenya on Tuesday, prompting the president to sweep out his top security officials to tackle a relentless wave of violence.
Kenyans have grown increasingly critical of President Uhuru Kenyatta for failing to do more to defend the nation from the incessant militant attacks, which have killed well over 200 people since 2013.
Al Shabaab has claimed responsibility for much of the bloodshed and says it will keep up the violence to persuade Kenya to pull its troops out of neighboring Somalia, where its forces have joined African troops battling the militants.
In Tuesday’s attack, gunmen crept up on dozens of workers sleeping in tents, a resident said, in the same area near the Somali border where a bus was hijacked just over a week ago and 28 passengers killed.
“The militia separated the Muslims, then ordered the non-Muslims to lie down where they shot them in the head at close range,” Hassan Duba, an elder at a nearby village, said.
A witness said at least two of the victims were beheaded.
Public pressure had been mounting on Kenyatta to sack police chief David Kimaiyo and Interior Minister Joseph ole Lenku since al Shabaab’s attack on Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall last year that killed 67 people and after subsequent violence.
Addressing the nation, Kenyatta said he had accepted Kimaiyo’s resignation and nominated a new interior minister, Joseph Nkaissery, a retired Major General, urging parliament to speedily approve his choice.
He called on opponents, who have criticized his handling of security policy, to unite in fighting the militants. “Our bickering only emboldens the enemy,” the president said.
As with past attacks, al Shabaab militants said they were punishing Kenya for sending troops to join African peacekeepers battling the Islamists in Somalia. In a statement, it put the death toll at 40 and called the victims “Kenyan crusaders”.
“We are uncompromising in our beliefs, relentless in our pursuit, ruthless against the disbelievers and we will do whatever necessary to defend our Muslim brethren suffering from Kenya’s aggression,” spokesman Ali Mohamud Rage said.
Kenya’s government and a witness said 36 people were killed. The government cited survivors saying about 20 fighters attacked the quarry, about 15 km (10 miles) from the town of Mandera. One person died in another attack on the northern town of Wajir late on Monday.
Western diplomats say Kenya’s security services, which receive support from Britain, the United States and others, are hobbled by poor coordination.
“We need to look at this as a systematic failure, rather than as an individual one,” Mandera County Governor Ali Roba told Reuters of the latest attack and called for an overhaul of Kenya’s security operations “from the grassroots up”.
Government opponents say the troops in Somalia have not protected Kenya and should be withdrawn. The government has repeatedly said it would not pull the troops out.
“They were supposed to create a buffer between our countries and the chaos on the other side. But it has not done that. So we are saying leave,” Dennis Onyango, a spokesman for opposition politician and former prime minister Raila Odinga, said.
Al Shabaab have been driven out of several strongholds in Somalia by an offensive by African Union and Somali troops this year, but analysts said it would not prevent the group from carrying out guerrilla-style attacks or striking abroad.
“This (latest attack) seems very much in line with al Shabaab strategy,” said Cedric Barnes of the Crisis Group in Nairobi of the latest attack. “It’s partly a result of al Shabaab being squeezed in Somalia.”