NAIROBI (Reuters) - Kenyan security forces fired assault rifles and tear gas at hundreds of Muslims protesting in the capital on Friday against the detention of Jamaican cleric Sheikh Abdullah al-Faisal.
Chanting “Allahu Akbar” (God is Greatest), the demonstrators were blocked by police with dogs as they tried to march through the heart of Nairobi after prayers at the downtown mosque.
Some Kenyans, furious the banned protest had taken place, joined forces with the police and began hurling stones at the marchers, most of whom were squeezed back towards the mosque after prolonged street skirmishes.
One protester in fatigues and a black balaclava waved the flag of al Shabaab — the Somali rebel group that Washington accuses of being al Qaeda’s proxy — and taunted the crowds by drawing his finger across his throat in a slitting motion.
Somali President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed said it was unfortunate Kenyan security had been disrupted in the name of religion.
“I am calling for Somalis to support peace, and respect their host. Kenya, like any other sovereign state, has the right to deport whoever it considers to be a national security threat,” he told Reuters in Nairobi.
Faisal was deported from Britain in 2007 for preaching racial hatred and urging his audiences to kill Jews, Hindus and Westerners. He was visiting the east African nation, which has a large Somali community in Nairobi, for a preaching tour when he was taken into custody.
“One person, a Jamaican, how can he make the whole country shut down? One person, how come no one in Jamaica is defending him?” said a man in a group that charged the Muslim protesters.
“These demonstrators, they can go back home to Somalia if they want to,” he told Reuters Television.
After nightfall, Somalis in Nairobi ran the gauntlet of mob justice. A Reuters witness saw a Somali man being dragged from his car not far from the mosque and beaten by an angry mob.
While the leaders of the protest were Kenyan Muslims, many of the demonstrators from the mosque were Somalis and this perception was fuelling the attacks.
Residents said groups of men were also stopping cars along the two main roads heading to Eastleigh, the eastern suburb of the capital where many Somalis live.
During the clashes, small ambulances shuttled to and fro with sirens blaring. A helicopter clattered overhead and police used water cannon to try to clear the streets.
Security forces fired AK-47 assault rifles at pockets of stone-throwing protesters, according to Reuters TV footage.
One fleeing demonstrator was grabbed by police and beaten with batons and kicked on the ground.
When the police moved on, a medic went to the man, bent down, closed his eyelids and carried him away. It was not clear whether the protestor was unconscious or dead.
Local media gave widely differing reports of casualties, ranging from two to seven dead. Witnesses said one security officer had been wounded by a gunshot.
Kenyatta National hospital said it had received six people with gunshot wounds, but they were out of danger.
Kenyan intelligence officials have said they fear Faisal’s speeches could stoke radicalism in a country that has suffered two al Qaeda-linked attacks. Faisal was arrested on December 31 and the government now wants to send him to Jamaica.
“Mr al-Faisal is a threat to this country because of his alleged tendencies to recruit suicide bombers,” government spokesman Alfred Mutua told reporters after the riots.
Attempts by Kenya to deport Faisal failed last week because Nigeria refused to give him a transit visa to Gambia.
Kenya hosts some 300,000 Somali refugees in camps and there is a large community in the capital. Some Somalis who fled the war say they fear Islamists are snatching or luring their children away from their new life in Kenya.
Al Shabaab is battling to overthrow the Somali government and impose its own harsh version of sharia, Islamic law.
While there are frequent reports of al Shabaab sympathisers being seen in Eastleigh, the appearance of their flags on the capital’s streets is new.
Additional reporting by Sahra Abdi, Abdiaziz Hassan, Njuwa Maina, Humphrey Malalo, and Linda Muriuki; writing by David Clarke; editing by Philippa Fletcher