YOUNG Muslims have set fire to a church, burned tyres and clashed with police in Kenya’s main port city of Mombasa, after the killing of an Islamic cleric his followers blamed on security forces.
Sheikh Ibrahim Omar’s death has ignited religious tensions in the commercial and tourism hub in east Africa’s largest economy, two weeks after Islamist militants killed at least 67 people in a raid on Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall.
The imam was shot dead on Thursday night, police said. He preached at a mosque that has in the past been linked to the Somali al-Shabaab Islamists who claimed responsibility for the shopping centre attack.
Sheikh Omar was found dead in a car hit by more than a dozen bullets, television images showed.
Youths yesterday torched a Salvation Army church and temporarily blocked the main road into the city, a witness said. Kenyan police in riot gear fired gunshots and teargas to break up the crowd. Four protestors were killed.
The worst of the running battles with police took place in Mombasa’s downtrodden Saba Saba neighbourhood, where traders shuttered their shops and residents fled for safety.
“We are trying to deal with some youths who have started bringing trouble within town,” Robert Kitur, Mombasa county police chief, said. “They are few. We will contain them.”
The imam was shot on the main road to the resort town of Malindi, a few hundred metres from where another firebrand cleric, Aboud Rogo, was shot dead in his vehicle in August 2012 in a strikingly similar attack.
Both Kenya and United States had accused Sheikh Rogo of recruiting and fundraising for al-Shabaab.
Sheikh Rogo’s death last year unleashed deadly riots in Mombasa’s run-down neighbourhoods where he commanded a loyal support base.
Both imams were popular among youths in Mombasa and along Kenya’s Indian Ocean coastline where many Muslims feel marginalised by the predominantly Christian government.
“This is no doubt a police execution given what has happened in Nairobi,” said 37-year-old Abdul Hassan Omar in Majengo district, where Sheikh Omar and Sheikh Rogo both preached.
Mr Kitur dismissed the accusation and said officers would stop any protests a getting out of control. “The police have nothing to do with the shooting. That’s not how we operate,” he told reporters.
The 21 September assault on the Westgate mall was the worst militant strike on Kenyan soil since al-Qaeda bombed the US embassy in Nairobi in 1998. “They (authorities) have panicked because of their own laxity which killed Kenyans at Westgate. Now they are trying to save face by sacrificing innocent Muslims,” said Hatib Suleiman, 21, who prays at Sheikh Omar’s Masjid Mussa mosque. “We are not going to take this lightly.”
Al-Amin Kimathi, chairman of the Muslim Human Rights Forum, said Sheikh Omar had been a student of Sheikh Rogo and had publicly espoused the hardline beliefs of his mentor.