NAIROBI — Gunmen in northern Kenya have killed at least 34 police officers who were hunting for cattle rustlers. Kenyan police say the officers were ambushed Saturday as their truck drove through the remote northern Baragoi district.
Search and rescue teams found 11 bodies on Saturday and another 19 the next day. Nine survivors have been hospitalized. Several policemen are missing.
Police are looking for the perpetrators of the attack.
Survivors of the attack in northwestern Kenya said they were ambushed as they went in pursuit of the suspected cattle thieves.
Police entered an area known as the Suguta Valley by truck Saturday ahead of an operation to recover the stolen animals. But they said the gunmen were waiting in the hills, and fired automatic weapons at the overpowered forces below.
Nine police officers were wounded. Kenyan media reported Monday that some officers are still unaccounted for.
Police spokesman Eric Kiraithe, speaking to a parliamentary commission Monday, said the attack was probably the result of an “operational oversight” on the part of the police.
"I believe the commander of this operation acted in very good faith and in the best interest of the community he was serving, but the operation went sour," he said.
Kiraithe was answering questions from lawmakers as a candidate for police inspector general. He said the assault this weekend demonstrates the need to improve the capacity of Kenya’s police force.
“This is purely a tactical matter, which has been very aggravated by ill equipment,” Kiraithe added.
He said, among other things, the police are lacking combat helicopters and bullet-proof vests.
Kenya’s Independent Policing Oversight Authority said it has launched an investigation into the incident, and promised to make its findings public.
Violence over resources in Kenya’s remote regions is not uncommon, but an attack of this magnitude on government forces is unusual. Kenyan media have called it the worst attack on police since the country became independent nearly 50 years ago.
The assault raises concerns about Kenya’s ability to control violence that may arise during the presidential election in March. More than 1,000 people were killed in violence after the last poll in December 2007.