A riot broke out in downtown Nairobi when a demonstration against the detention of a radical Muslim cleric from Jamaica turned into ongoing street clashes. Civilians on both sides attacked each other with rocks as Kenyan security forces fired tear gas and live bullets into the mass of protesters supporting the cleric. At least one person was killed and several others were wounded.
The protesters gathered outside the Jamia mosque in the heart of Nairobi's city center Friday, protesting the detention of visiting Jamaican preacher Abdullah al-Faisal.
As they tried to cross a police barrier, the officers fired tear gas into the crowd. The protesters responded by hurling stones, smashing vehicles and scattering observers.
Kenyan civilian bystanders joined the police ranks, tossing the projectiles back against the dodging protesters. They shouted "Let's go" in Swahili as they alternatively charged and then retreated against the Muslim youth. Bystanders could be heard cheering whenever the civilian-backed police gained the upper hand.
The street clashes continued for hours as riot police were reinforced by the nation's paramilitary GSU units. The security forces intermittently fired live bullets into the crowd centered around the mosque. At least three protesters had to be rushed to the hospital for bullet wounds, and another was reportedly killed.
Violent clashes between police and civilians are a common occurrence here, but Friday's events were something new on the Nairobi streets, where the sight of civilians actively siding with riot police is especially rare.
Relations between Kenya's minority Muslim population and its mostly Christian countrymen have in the past remained relatively peaceful despite the al-Qaida-linked bombing of two U.S. embassies in 1998.
But seeping radical Islamist elements from neighboring Somalia and a growing sentiment of marginalization by many Muslims within the nation's political system has heightened tensions.
The clashes seemed to release long-festering frustrations from within this segment of the Muslim community, and unsympathetic Nairobi residents clearly had little patience for this fresh disturbance in their streets.
Muslim leaders have taken an increasingly vocal tone towards claiming certain minority religious rights in Kenya, and this has been counteracted by a growing conservative Christian evangelical movement that is beginning to flex its muscles politically as well.
The recent spark for Friday's eruption was the guest appearance of Faisal, who was convicted and jailed in British courts after being found guilty of conducting hate speech against Westerners, Jews, and Hindus.
Kenya had reportedly previously denied the preacher a visa into the country, but this time Faisal entered undetected through a lesser Tanzanian border point. Upon discovery of his arrival, Kenyan authorities detained the controversial cleric and announced the intent to immediately deport him back to Jamaica.
Efforts by the East African nation to rid itself of the unwanted religious speaker have failed, as apparently no country has been willing to temporarily accept Faisal in transit to the Caribbean island.
Al-Amin Kimathi, the leader of a Muslim advocacy group, has led the cries against the detention of the cleric and was clearly visible at the rally today,
Muslim leaders have filed a motion in court seeking to block the deportation of the preacher and to allow visitation rights. The court has ruled that Kenyan authorities must present Faisal before a judge next week if he is still remaining in state custody.