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(Nairobi) – The attack on a Nairobi shopping mall that killed at least 61 people and wounded hundreds was a horrendous act for which those responsible should be fully prosecuted, Human Rights Watch said today. Kenyan authorities should take all necessary measures to protect vulnerable communities from potential retaliation.

On September 21, 2013, an unknown number of heavily armed men and women attacked Westgate Mall, a popular upscale shopping center in Nairobi. Kenyan security services were only able to end the attack and restore order on September 24. Representatives of the armed Somali Islamist group al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attack in the media, and said that it was in response to Kenya’s October 2011 military intervention against al-Shabaab in Somalia.

“Nothing justifies the cruel contempt for human life shown by the attackers at Westgate,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The victims of this sickening attack and their relatives deserve justice. Those responsible for this horror should be swiftly caught and prosecuted.” Since October 2011, when Kenyan military forces deployed in Somalia, Kenya has experienced dozens of attacks by unidentified people involving shootings, grenades, and other explosives. More than 100 people have been killed and hundreds injured. Most of the attacks have been in Kenya’s North East region near the Somali border, but some have been in Mombasa and Nairobi. 

Kenyan security agencies have in the past responded to attacks for which they blamed Somalis with widespread abuses against the Somali Kenyan and Somali refugee communities.In one of the most serious incidents, in Eastleigh on November 18, 2012, an improvised explosive device, or IED, detonated on a crowded minibus, killing at least 10 people. The incident sparked several days of rioting by youth gangs in Eastleigh, who attacked residents of Somali origin, including both refugees and Kenyans, and looted Somali-owned shops.

Kenyan police responded by beating, mistreating, and arbitrarily detaining at least 1,000 people, primarily Somali refugees.Members of Kenya’s Somali communities – both Somali Kenyans and refugees – have expressed growing fear that the Westgate attacks could prompt new ethnic violence, including by members of the security forces.

The Kenyan government should publicly urge all politicians not to make statements that could incite violence and should direct law enforcement agencies to protect all communities from retaliatory violence.  

“The police will be under pressure to identify the people responsible for this horrific crime, but they need to respond with professional law enforcement operations that respect the rule of law,” Bekele said. “They should take steps to protect all Kenyan residents from retaliation, including immigrant communities and refugees.”

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