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World

Al-Shabab Militants Attack University In Kenya

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Ahead, we'll be taking a closer look at the framework agreement reached today to limit Iran's nuclear program.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

But first, to one of the other top stories we're following today, an attack on a university campus in Kenya. A government minister says Islamist al-Shabab militants killed 147 people and injured nearly 80 others.

CORNISH: Kenyan security officers exchanged gunfire with the militants throughout the day. The gunmen claimed to have let Muslims go but killed Christians. NPR's Gregory Warner has more.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Nelly Makhoka was woken this morning by gunfire and explosions. Gunmen had forced their way before dawn into her university campus in Garissa, Kenya, about a hundred miles from the Somali border. And when the 20-year-old education major talked to me from an army safe house on a patchy cell phone too poor for broadcast, she told me that scores of her classmates were still trapped inside. Some were hiding in closets. Some were under their beds.

Throughout the day and into the evening, the gunmen and the trapped students were holed up in one particular block of dormitories, seemingly scouted out by the gunmen in advance. It's a block with clear views of inside and outside and ample protection for gunmen on the roof. All day, Kenyan security forces were unable to gain access. A few hours before the battle's conclusion, I spoke with Arnolda Shiundu at the Kenyan Red Cross. She said dozens had been airlifted and treated for gunshot wounds, but doctors were still preparing to receive those inside with injuries likely compounded by time.

ARNOLDA SHIUNDU: The students have gone through a whole day without food, without water, and of course you can imagine the adrenaline that has been pumping through them. So that will be the worry.

WARNER: The greater worry that Shiundu wouldn't speculate on is the one that came to be. Soon after nightfall, witnesses heard a massive series of explosions. Speaking to reporters on the scene, the minister of interior, Joseph Nkaissery, said the gunmen were strapped with suicide vests.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSEPH NKAISSERY: The officers who were - got injured, they shoot these terrorists. Terrorists just blow because they are like bombs. So some of the shrapnel which was strapped on the bodies of the terrorists is the one which injured the officers.

WARNER: After this dramatic encounter, there was no more talk from authorities about rescuing hostages - only about sweeping the area and counting the dead. For many Kenyans, the ominous language recalled the final hours of another attack in Nairobi in 2013 on Westgate Shopping Mall. That attack killed 67 people and was claimed by the same Islamist group, al-Shabab, based over the border in Somalia which has stepped up terrorism along this border region. Stig Hansen, author of the book "Al-Shabaab In Somalia," says both attacks have the group's signature.

STIG HANSEN: Their main signature here is you have a small team going in. It's trying to hold a compound over time. To maximize media attention, they want to hold it. Unfortunately, in this situation, very often the hostages are killed - at least the non-Muslim hostages are killed.

WARNER: But Hansen says one aspect of this attack did surprise him, the choice of target. Al-Shabab is not known for targeting university students, as is, say, the Islamist group in Nigeria, Boko Haram. But in the race to attract foreign recruits, al-Shabab has been losing ground to the more showy and brutal Boko Haram and Islamic State, even among their fellow ethnic Somalis.

HANSEN: If you are an extremist second-generation Somali these days, you will go to Syria and Iraq.

WARNER: The message, he says, of this deadly attack was aimed not just at Kenya but at potential jihadist groups as far away as Europe and the United States. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.