Village in Northern Kenya
Village in northern Kenya (World Watch Monitor)

Al-Shabaab militants have slaughtered 36 quarry workers in northern Kenya – all of the victims are believed to be Christian.

Local residents told the BBC that the militants separated the group from Muslim workers before shooting them dead.

Al-Shabaab, an al Qaeda affiliate based in Somalia, has claimed responsibility for the attack.

It said in a press release issue on 2 December that ‘nearly 40 Kenyan crusaders met their demise’ in the attack, adding that it was ‘part of a series of attacks planned in response to Kenya’s occupation of Muslim lands and their ongoing atrocities …such as recent airstrikes on Muslims in Somalia.’

Kenya’s military said the airstrikes were a response to Al-Shabaab’s 22 November attack on a bus which was travelling to Nairobi and left 28 dead. The militants then isolated non-Muslims because they couldn’t recite the Shahada, an Islamic creed. Those who failed the test were asked to lie down before gunmen shot all but one of them dead. George Ochwodho, a school teacher, survived and later described the attack to Associated Press.

Today at the stone quarry, Peter Nderitu, who works there, told CBC News that a group of about 50 heavily armed people walked into their camp next to the quarry at 12.30am as the men were sleeping, and fired warning shots.

Nderitu said when he heard the shooting he ran and hid in a trench, from where he could hear his colleagues being asked to recite the Shahada, an Islamic creed declaring oneness with God. Then gunshots followed. He said he rose from hiding two hours later when he was sure there was no more movement. He said the bodies of his colleagues were in two rows and that nearly all had been shot in the back of the head.

Ali Sheikh Yusuf, a driver who visited the scene shortly after the attack, said most of the victims appeared to have been lined-up, and shot in the head, at close range.

He is reported as saying four were beheaded inside their tents, while three appeared to have escaped to nearby Mandera town.

Other reports suggested the workers’ tents had been sprayed with gunfire. A source told World Watch Monitor that an unknown number of workers had been abducted. The source added that there was ‘lots of gunfire near the Kenya-Somali border so we cannot venture out just yet’.

Other witnesses confirmed the attack took place early on Tuesday. They said the victims were caught after midnight, while sleeping in their tents at the quarry in Kormey, nine miles (15km) from Mandera town, which is on Kenya’s border with both Somalia and Ethiopia.

Many of the quarry workers killed are reported to have come from the south of Kenya where Christians predominate. A witness told World Watch Monitor that the stone quarry employed about 200 people, adding that most came from ‘down country’ – a reference to southern Kenya.

Al-Shabaab has stepped up its campaign in Kenya since 2011, when Kenya sent troops across the border to help battle the militants.

The attack follows an incident on 1 December when grenades were thrown into a social club in Wajir, a town not far from Mandera, also close to the Somali border, that is popular with government officials. The attackers opened fire on people as they fled the bar; leaving one dead and 12 injured.

A presidential adviser from Mandera told the BBC that Al-Shabaab is trying to fan a religious war in a part of Kenya that is dominated by Kenyan Somalis, most of whom are Muslim.

The attacks have led to Christian leaders publicly accusing Muslim leaders of not doing enough to tame radicalism within their ranks, as well as putting pressure on the government to step up efforts to end the insurgency and secure the borders.

In June, at least 65 people were killed a month ago in the predominantly Christian town of Mpeketoni, 40km inland from Kenya’s mainly Muslim coastal strip, in attacks which some reports linked to Al-Shabaab, and also local politicians.

This year there has been a series of attacks involving grenades and improvised bombs, which have hit churches in Nairobi, Mombasa and Garissa (also close to Kenya’s Somali border).

In September 2013, radical Islamists claimed responsibility for the Westgate Shopping Mall terrorist attack in Nairobi, where Al-Shabaab gunmen killed at least 67 people and injured 175.