NAIROBI (Reuters) - Kenyan police fired tear gas to disperse rioters who attacked ethnic Somalis in the Nairobi district known as "Little Mogadishu" on Monday, hurling rocks and smashing windows after a weekend bomb attack there killed nine people.
The violence coincided with the start of voter registration for a general election in March, adding to security concerns ahead of the first national polls since 2007 when a dispute over the results fuelled ethnic slaughter that killed more than 1,200 people and forced some 300,000 from their homes.
Angry mobs broke into Somali homes and shops in anger at Sunday's attack on a minibus which killed at least nine people in Nairobi's Eastleigh district which is dominated by Somali Kenyans and their ethnic kin who have fled fighting in Somalia.
Ethnic Somalis, some armed with machetes, fought back and hurled rocks at their attackers who responded with sling shots and stones. Paramilitary police fired volleys of teargas to prise the battling factions apart.
"We are trying to create a buffer zone so that people cannot cross over," Nairobi regional police commander Moses Ombati told reporters, pointing to a road that he said formed a rough boundary between the two communities.
"These people are neighbours and business partners who need each other, so I don't think it will last long," he said.
Gangs of looters ran amok as the security forces fought to quell the violence. One Somali trader, who gave her name only as Hamdi for fear of reprisal attacks, said she was worried the unrest would spread throughout Eastleigh's rundown estates.
"I condemn anyone who carried out this heinous act," she said, referring to Sunday's bomb attack. "It's affecting many innocent civilians and is causing the Somali community to be targeted."
Authorities have blamed Somali militants and their sympathisers for grenade and gun attacks in Kenya since Nairobi sent soldiers into neighbouring Somalia last year to drive out al-Shabaab rebels, an Islamist group with links to al Qaeda.
Attacks have intensified since Kenyan forces, fighting under an African Union banner, and Somali government troops routed al Shabaab from their last major urban bastion, the Somali port of Kismayu last month and forced the rebels to flee.
Two Kenyan soldiers were shot dead in the eastern town of Garissa, which is a rear base for Kenya troops fighting in Somalia as part of the regional African Union force.
"THEY SHOULD JUST CHILL"
In the Eastleigh district of the capital Nairobi, crowds poured through the streets chanting "Somalis must go!", hurling rocks and smashing windows of some Somali apartment blocks.
Rioters jeered police who fired warnings shots in the air, demanding the government improve security in a district that has borne the brunt of the grenade and gun attacks.
Streets in Eastleigh, a congested residential and business area, were strewn with rocks and shattered glass. Shops shuttered their windows and most business were closed in what is one of Nairobi's busiest trading centres.
People stood on rooftops while some ethnic Somalis gestured for assistance through their windows.
"These Somalis are getting used to this. Every day there is a grenade attack," said Evans, a non-Somali resident of the area wearing sandals and a dirty t-shirt with a print of Che Guevara.
Children in school uniform and their parents ran from school after being trapped in the unrest. Others ran with hands in air as police began arresting suspects. At least a dozen Kenyan men lay face down in one truck.
Local businessman Godfrey Biketi who supplies meat to Eastleigh, urged his fellow Kenyans to be calm.
"They should just chill. They're our neighbours," he said of the Somalis. "Even our country is fighting a war in Somalia. Now our country is becoming like theirs, it's not cool," he said.
The Muslim Human Rights Forum said that even if the suspects responsible for Sunday's bombing were proven to be Somalis, it did not mean the whole community was involved.
"The xenophobic attacks must be stopped at all costs lest they escalate to unmanageable mayhem at grave costs to the nation," the group's chairman Al-Amin Kimathi said.
(Additional reporting by Mahad Diriye; Writing by James Macharia; Editing by Jon Hemming)