Nairobi - An attack blamed on al-Shabaab on Thursday killed 147 people at a Kenyan university, making it the biggest attributed to the Somali terrorist group in the East African country, officials and reports said.
The National Disaster Operation Centre said 147 fatalities had been confirmed at the university college in Garissa, 350km east of Nairobi. The centre said on Twitter all four attackers had been killed. They were believed to be among the 147.
The Interior Ministry said the siege, which began at dawn, had ended by the end of the day.
At least 79 people were reported injured and 587 people were evacuated from the campus.
The death toll exceeded that of the September 2013 siege of the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi in which 67 people are known to have died.
Gunmen posed as Muslim worshippers
The attack in Garissa reportedly started at a mosque inside the university, where gunmen entered posing as worshippers.
The attackers "shot indiscriminately while inside the university compound," with local police engaging them in a "fierce shoot-out," a statement from the police inspector general in Nairobi said.
Witness Abdi Fatah said the attackers fired at him and other fleeing students.
The attackers initially retreated before gaining entry into student dormitories, the police statement said.
The attackers took control of one dormitory and held an unknown number of students and the university's deputy principal as hostages, according to Interior Minister Joseph Nkaissery.
Kenya launched a manhunt for the suspected mastermind of the attack, Mohamed Dulyadayn, who was not believed to be one of the four attackers. They issued a photograph of him and said he also was known as Mohamed Kuno Gamadheere or Sheikh Mohamed.
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The security forces offered an award of 20 million shillings for the former Qur’an teacher from Garissa, who was believed to have joined al-Shabaab and risen to the rank of commander.
The newspaper Daily Nation said he had been on the run since December after being connected with an al-Shabaab attack that killed about 60 people in Mandera county near the Somali border.
Most injuries gunshot wounds
A senior al-Shabaab commander, who did not want to be named, confirmed to dpa by phone from southern Somalia that the group had carried out the attack in Garissa.
The Red Cross said most of the injuries were gunshot wounds, adding that several of the victims were in critical condition.
A tent was set up at a Garissa hospital to extend its ward capacity.
The army airlifted two soldiers and one civilian to the capital Nairobi for emergency treatment, according to the Red Cross.
Police imposed an overnight curfew in Garissa and nearby counties until April 16, according to the National Disaster Operation Centre.
President Uhuru Kenyatta said he had directed police to promptly recruit 10 000 new trainees in an attempt to prevent more attacks.
The United States condemned the attack. US ambassador to Kenya Robert Godec said the attack "once again reinforces the need for all countries and communities to unite in the effort to combat violent extremism."
A White House statement extended condolences to the families and loved ones of the people killed in the attack, which it said reportedly included the targeting of Christian students.
Garissa, a town of 120 000 at 140km from the Somali border, has been targeted in the past by suspected members of al-Shabaab.
In December, a grenade thrown into a local cafe injured two people, and in April 2013, gunmen killed six people in an attack on a local hotel.
In July 2012, suspected terrorists killed 17 people in attacks on two Garissa churches.
Al-Shabaab has also staged attacks elsewhere in Kenya in response to the country's participation in an African Union contingent that helps Somalia fight the group.