The death toll in the attack on a Kenyan university by extremists has risen sharply to 147 people, as the operation to free hostages being held in a dormitory there ended with the deaths of four “terrorists” involved, Kenyan officials said. The number of casualties makes it one of the deadliest terror attacks in the country's recent history.
The al Qaeda-affiliated terror group al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the assault earlier today. In addition to the four purportedly killed, Kenyan authorities said another suspect was taken into custody.
Most of the victims were students, Kenyan Interior Minister Joseph Nkaissery said, but two policemen, a soldier and two watchmen were also killed.
The attack began at about 5:30 a.m. local time today at Garissa University College, which is located near the country's border with Somalia, and lasted more than 13 hours. The violence started as students were preparing for their morning prayers.
An unidentified student, recounting the attack to Kenya's Citizen TV, said the chaos sent innocent citizens running into harm's way.
"Guys started jumping up and down, running for their lives, but it's unfortunate that where they were going to is where the gunshots were coming from," the student said.
The gunmen allegedly killed scores before they were cornered, with dozens of other hostages, in a dormitory by Kenyan authorities.
The gunmen had strapped themselves with explosives and, when they were shot, the attackers blew up "like bombs," Nkaissery said.
The death toll rose in jumps throughout the day, from 15 to 70 to the most recent count of 147, which was reported on Twitter by Kenya's Disaster Operations Centre.
As of last week authorities had apparently warned of a potential terror attack targeting campuses, according to a flyer posted at the University of Nairobi and other schools at the capital, more than 200 miles away from Garissa.
"Intelligence reports indicate that the [al-Shabab] terror group is planning retaliatory attacks on vital installations in Nairobi including a major university," the March 25 flyer said. It asked all students and staff there to "continue being vigilant and diligent while in the University and other crowded places."
A spokesman for al-Shabab previously told the BBC the gunmen had released 15 Muslim students.
An al-Shabab commander, Mohamed Mohamud, was identified by the Interior Ministry as a "mastermind" of the attack and there is a reward of more than $200,000 apparently for information leading to his arrest.
Based out of Somalia and affiliated with al Qaeda, al-Shabab was behind the attack on the Westgate mall in Nairobi in 2013 that killed 67.
Last month, a U.S. drone strike killed an al-Shabab leader, believed to have been behind the Westgate attack.
America's Ambassador to Kenya, Robert Godec, said in a written statement that the U.S. "offer[s] our profound appreciation and gratitude to the members of the Kenyan security services who are risking their lives to end this cowardly attack."
"We stand shoulder to shoulder with the government and people of Kenya in the effort to end the scourge of terrorism," Godec said.
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