The Somali militant group al-Shabab has claimed responsibility for an attack on a Kenyan town that killed at least 48 people.
A statement posted to a pro-Shabab website says gunmen attacked hotels, police stations, banks and other public places in the coastal town of Mpeketoni. Some of those killed had gathered to watch the football World Cup.
Abass Gullet, the head of the Kenya Red Cross, told VOA's Swahili Service that the gunmen wounded others in the attack late Sunday and caused significant damage.
"There are unconfirmed number injured, but we are trying to look with the government security forces. But there's also property that has been destroyed. There are two hotels and two banks and vehicles that have been burned. But other than that I think the attackers have run away," Gullet said.
At a news conference in Nairobi on Monday, Kenyan Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Lenku said security officers are pursuing the perpetrators, and warned against attempts to incite public anger.
Al-Shabab says the attack was retaliation for the slaying of Muslim clerics in the Kenyan city of Mombasa, where several preachers have been killed in the past two years.
The group blames Kenyan security forces for the killings -- an accusation Kenyan officials have denied.
Michael Yiebei, who works with the Kenya Red Cross, told the VOA his response team found numerous bodies lying in the streets, some shot, others hacked to death.
“More bodies have been recovered and right now we are talking about 48 dead persons,” Leonard Omollo, Lamu County police commander, told Reuters on telephone. “All the dead are men. There are no women or children.”
There were no immediate reports of foreign visitors being hurt in Sunday's attack, Reuters reported. The dead included at least one police officer.
Dozens of attackers
"There were around 50 attackers, heavily armed in three vehicles, and they were flying the Shabab flag. They were shouting in Somali and shouting 'Allahu Akbar' ('God is greatest')," District deputy commissioner Benson Maisori said, adding they attacked a police station, but officers fought them off.
Resident Anne Gathigi, 38, a mother of five, said the attackers killed her husband.
"They forced their way into our house, found us in the bedroom. They picked up my husband and took him to the sitting room where they demanded money from him, as soon as he gave them some cash, they shot him at close range," she told AFP.
"Then they turned to me and asked me if I knew Al-Shebab. They told me since 'our government has refused to pull our soldiers from Somalia, they had come to leave us 'widows and orphans.'"
Local resident and witness John Waweru, 28, said he lost two of his brothers to the attackers.
"I heard them shouting in Somali as they fired around. I lost two of my brothers, and I escaped. I ran and locked up myself in a house," he told AFP.
The fierce gun battles continued until after midnight, but by dawn on Monday the town of Mpeketoni was reported calm with security forces saying they were in pursuit of the attackers and authorities recovering the dead.
In Nairobi, Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Ole Lenku said police eventually drove the attackers away.
“The security services were mobilized to respond to the attack and after fierce exchange of fire the bandits fled into Boni forest," Lenku said.
Many Mpeketoni residents fled from the attack into nearby forests, said David Kimaiyo, the inspector general of Kenya's police.
No arrests yet
The al-Qaida-linked Islamist group has been behind a number of attacks in Kenya, which has troops fighting al-Shabab in Somalia. More than 60 people were killed when al-Shabab militants assaulted a Nairobi shopping mall last September.
In 2010, the militant group attacked a World Cup viewing site in Uganda, which also has troops in Somalia. That attack killed more than 70 people.
Kenya, which has blamed al-Shabab for previous attacks, had said it would be on alert during the World Cup to ensure public showings of matches were kept safe.
The attack could heighten existing worries in other African nations such as Nigeria, which is battling the Boko Haram Islamist insurgency, that bars and other venues drawing crowds by hosting World Cup match screenings could become targets.
Sunday's assault is the worst since last September when al-Shabab gunmen attacked Nairobi's Westgate shopping mall, leaving 67 people dead.
VOA's Mohammed Yusuf contributed from Nairobi. Some information for this report provided by Reuters and AFP.