The bodies of the 148 students and security officers massacred by Somalia’s Shebab Islamists in a Kenyan university were flown Friday to Nairobi where their desperate and grieving loved ones were waiting.
The day-long siege of Garissa University was Kenya’s deadliest attack since the 1998 bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi, and the bloodiest ever by the Al-Qaeda-affiliated militants.
The Kenyan government, however, vowed that it would not be “intimidated”.
Amid international revulsion at the attack, US President Barack Obama called Kenyan leader Uhuru Kenyatta and vowed to stand “hand-in-hand” with his government and the Kenyan people.
Pope Francis condemned the massacre as an act of “senseless brutality.”
Survivors recounted how the masked gunmen taunted students before killing them at the campus near the Somali border.
Many were forced to phone their parents to urge them to call for Kenyan troops to leave Somalia — before shooting them anyway.
As the gunmen prowled the corridors hunting down more people to kill, some students smeared blood from their dead friends over their bodies to pretend they too had been shot.
“There were bodies everywhere in execution lines, we saw people whose heads had been blown off, bullet wounds everywhere, it was a grisly mess,” said Reuben Nyaora, an aid worker who helped the wounded.
Others appeared to have been killed by knives.
The day-long siege ended with four gunmen killed in a hail of gunfire, and one suspect reportedly arrested.
At least 79 people were also wounded in the attack on the campus, which lies near the border with Somalia.
Those killed were all students apart from three policemen and three soldiers.
On Friday, a huge crowd of traumatised survivors and relatives gathered at the university gate, desperate for news of who was killed or wounded.
“I am so worried, I had a son who was among the students trapped inside the college, and since yesterday I have heard nothing,” said Habel Mutinda, an elderly man, his face streaming with tears.
“I tried to identify his body among those killed… I have to do that before the body goes bad in the heat.”
– Kenya ‘will fight back’ –
Visiting the scene of the carnage, Kenya’s Interior Minister Joseph Nkaissery vowed his country would not give in to the Shebab, who despite losing territory inside Somalia have stepped up operations in Kenya.
“Kenya’s government will not be intimidated by the terrorists who have made killing innocent people a way to humiliate the government,” he told reporters, promising that the government would “fight back”.
“We shall win this war against our enemies.”
Emergency workers scoured the campus collecting bodies, with the final toll declared late Friday as 148.
Obama, who will make a long-awaited return to Kenya, his father’s homeland, in July, said “words cannot adequately condemn the terrorist atrocities that took place”.
“The future of Kenya will not be defined by violence and terror; it will be shaped by young people like those at Garissa University College,” he added.
Hurling grenades and firing automatic rifles, the gunmen stormed the university at dawn on Thursday as students were sleeping, shooting dead dozens before setting Muslims free and holding Christians and others hostage.
Just before darkness fell, Kenyan troops moved in on the dormitory where the gunmen were holed up, apparently determined to prevent a drawn-out siege like that seen in the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi in September 2013.
Maureen Manyengo, a 21-year-old education student from western Kenya, said she hid inside her wardrobe after seeing several friends killed.
“I could hear the attackers telling my friends, ‘Do not worry, we will kill you, but we will die too’,” she recalled, saying the attackers spoke in Kenya’s Swahili language, not Somali.
“I could also hear them saying ‘You will only be safe the day your president removes the soldiers from Somalia’.”
Gunmen also warned students it was “only the start” of such attacks.
– Bounty offered for mastermind –
Several buses took traumatised students from the university — which has been ordered to close permanently — back to their home areas, as the bodies of those killed were flown to the capital.
Scores of weeping family members gathered Friday at the main Nairobi mortuary, where a line of the dead students were laid out.
The university siege marks the worst attack on Kenyan soil since the 1998 bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi by Al-Qaeda, when 213 people were killed by a huge truck bomb.
The Shebab also staged the Westgate mall siege in which four gunmen killed 67 people over four days.
Shebab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage said the killings were in revenge for the presence of Kenyan troops in Somalia as part of the African Union’s force supporting the internationally-backed government in Mogadishu.
“Kenya is at war with Somalia,” Rage said.
A $215,000 (200,000 euro) bounty was offered for the capture of alleged Shebab commander Mohamed Mohamud, a former Kenyan teacher believed to now be in Somalia and said to be the mastermind behind the Garissa attack.