Battles broke out as armed paramilitary police moved towards a mosque, whose leaders have been accused of links to Somalia’s Islamist Shebab, insurgents who massacred 67 in Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall last month.
Angry protesters took to the streets after unknown gunmen assassinated a popular Muslim preacher and his three companions in a drive-by shooting late on Thursday, a killing that mirrored the murder of another extremist cleric last year that provoked days of deadly riots.
“We will not tolerate unruly youth taking over the town,” Mombasa police chief Kipkemoi Rop said, adding that 24 had been arrested.
A Salvation Army church was torched, but firemen brought the blaze under control.
Mombasa is Kenya’s main port and a major tourist hub, popular with visitors coming to enjoy the white sand beaches on the Indian Ocean coastline.
Riots, which began after midday Muslim prayers, had largely calmed by late afternoon with Kenya’s national crisis centre reporting only “sporadic violence” and stone-throwing youths.
The crisis centre said three people died of stab wounds, while the Red Cross said another hit by gunfire died in hospital. Seven others were wounded.
Slain cleric Sheikh Ibrahim Ismail was viewed as the successor to Aboud Rogo Mohammed, a controversial preacher accused of links to Somalia’s Shebab insurgents, who was shot dead in August 2012.
Like in the case of Rogo, radical preachers have said the killing of Ismail was an “execution” by the police, which denied the claim.
During rioting, thick smoke from burning tyres rose around Mombasa’s Masjid Musa mosque — where both Rogo and Ismail used to preach — as police fired tear gas and youths hurled stones in return.
Salim Abdallah, a witness, said he saw one man who had been shot in the belly “bleeding profusely” with his clothes soaked in blood.
“We just pray for him,” Abdallah said.
It was not clear who was responsible for the gunfire.
Police claim control
Sporadic clashes and looting were reported in several districts of the city, but as dusk approached, the police insisted they were in control.
“We have deployed enough officers to get the streets back to normal,” Rop added.
The killing of Ismail follows attacks last month by the Al-Qaeda linked Shebab, who launched a deadly assault on an upmarket Nairobi shopping mall in a four-day bloodbath.
The Islamists have since threatened “rivers of blood” would flow in fresh attacks if Kenya does not pull its troops out of Somalia.
Rogo was on US and UN sanctions lists for allegedly supporting the Shebab, including through recruitment and fundraising.
Another radical cleric, Abubaker Shariff Ahmed — known more commonly by his nickname “Makaburi” or “grave” in Swahili — accused the police of the “outright execution” of Ismail and his comrades.
“The police are killing people while saying it is a war against terrorism, this is a war against Islam,” said Makaburi, a former close colleague of Rogo who is also on a UN sanctions list, accused of recruiting and fundraising for the Shebab. “These people have been executed.”
Local police chief Julius Wanjohi has appealed to the public for information on the attack on the cleric.
Salim Abdi was the only person in the car to survive the attack.
“There were gunshots and the vehicle veered off the road, I don’t know how I walked out of the vehicle alive,” Abdi said. “All four others I was with in the vehicle died on the spot.”
An AFP reporter said the car, whose windows were shattered and doors riddled with bullet holes, had smashed into the verge off the main coastal highway running north out of Mombasa.
Some bullet casings lay scattered around the car, suggesting that shots had been fired after the vehicle had stopped, while Ismail’s bloodied body lay slumped on the backseat with his companions.