By Cyrus Ombati and Michael Saitoti
Cattle rustlers killed 30 police officers in the Baragoi ambush, a fact that raises concern at the level of preparedness by security agencies and the frightening capacity of firepower bandits now have.
In what is reported to be the worst single attack on the police since Independence, 11 bodies were picked on Saturday and 19 more on Sunday. Two senior inspectors are still missing and their fate remains unknown.
In what is likely to shake the government’s security machinery to its core, some of the police officers were ambushed and executed by armed bandits at Lomerok area in Baragoi, Samburu North District at 4am. Nine survivors are in hospital. The bodies recovered so far will be flown to Nairobi tomorrow.
The killings brought the total number of the people so far killed in the area in the last two weeks to 43. The attacks came as interviews for the incoming Inspector General of Police progressed and in the midst of a go-slow by police over a salary dispute.
Suguta Valley is billed as one of the driest areas in Kenya, and is literally a death trap given its rugged topography, that takes police about ten hours to surmount on either side, and the experienced raiders just about three hours.
It is believed the 19 additional police officers were killed on Sunday after the 11 who were executed on Saturday. There was even a theory that they were incapacitated during the first attack and the raiders only came back to finish them off the next day. The lorry under attack was carrying over 50 officers from GSU, AP and regular police wing.
A stunned Standard reporter watched as the 21 bodies were collected for the flight to Nairobi.
By the time of going to press last evening a senior GSU officer in the rank of Superintendent and another from the Administration Police wing of the same rank were missing.
Police Spokesman Eric Kiraithe confirmed the recovery of 30 bodies and cancellation of plans to ferry the bodies to Nairobi on Sunday.
The Standard team on the ground counted 30 bodies of police officers as they were being picked from Suguta Valley in an operation co-ordinated by the head of police operations in Rift Valley Province Mr Willy Lugusa.
A furious Internal Security Minister Katoo ole Metito pledged that government would leave no stone unturned until the killers were arrested and brought to justice.
Ole Metito who spoke to The Standard from Tel Aviv in Israel where he is on an official visit said he was saddened by the tragic assault, which he described as the worst to have happened in the country’s history.
Metito who was destined to return in the country on Thursday said he had cut short his trip and will board the next flight back home. “It is a disaster. It is impunity of the highest order. It has never happened in this country before. I am looking for the next available flight now. I have to be on the scene by tomorrow to take firm action,” he added.
Internal security Assistant Minister Simeon Lesirma, who hails from the region, and his Permanent Secretary Mr Mutea Iringo held a security meeting in the morning at the office of the President. Lesirma described the massacre as “shocking and unacceptable.”
Iringo said it was shocking the attackers could kill such a high number of police officers adding that: “It seems some of them were killed early this morning.”
Meanwhile, the government dispatched two police helicopters in the morning while another team of officers was mobilised on the ground to pursue the attackers who are believed to be from Turkana.
In a cruel twist of fate a police officer that was found fighting for his life in a thicket more than 24 hours after they were ambushed, passed on.
The officer who had a bullet lodged in his chest was found Sunday morning after the Saturday morning attack that left his colleagues dead.
“We have found one officer with serious wound in the chest in a thicket but he has left us. The search is on. We do not know the fate of the missing officers,” said a senior officer on the ground but asked not to be named.
Witnesses and survivors said the officers were aboard a police lorry pursuing hundreds of cattle that had been robbed from herders in the area when they were ambushed.
Apparently, the attackers hid in thickets as their accomplices drove the animals ahead and sprayed the police truck with bullets using “sophisticated” weapons, said a senior police officer.
It was then that some of the officers escaped from the scene with injuries. It is not clear if they managed to shoot back.
By the time they received reinforcement, the attackers had left the scene with the stolen animals.
Lesirma told The Standard priority had switched to rescuing the missing officers, who it later turned out, had been killed. “I am appealing to both sides to recognise that this is not an incident caused by tribes but the work of criminals,” he added.
Lesirma said there were excess firearms in the area, which the government would mop up. “Both Turkana and Samburus must embrace peace if things have to work out,’ he added.
Iringo said: “We have a plan for that region and we will tell you more soon. Things cannot (continue) happening this same way.”
He urged local leaders to spearhead peace and reconciliation even as he added more personnel had been dispatched to the area.
At Kenyatta National Hospital, a section of the ward had been set aside for the police officers brought in on Saturday.
They include seven policemen and two reservists who were injured in the Baragoi assault. Another officer who was shot and wounded in an attack in Nairobi’s Dandora Estate later joined them.
KNH spokesman Kibet Mengich said the officers included four Administration Police officers, one from GSU and two from Anti-Stock Theft Unit. “Two are admitted with gunshot wounds on various parts of the body while seven have soft tissue injuries, fractures, lower limb and abdomen injuries,” Mengich told The Standard.
The officers at the hospital were heard complaining that the State had neglected officers serving in the remote areas to the North of the country where they lamented cattle rustlers are having a field day. They believe the animals end up in Nairobi where they are slaughtered and the meat sold.
“That place needs permanent choppers and dedicated officials to ensure the robbers who you refer as rustlers are contained by use of maximum force. The area is neglected,” said an officer who was among those injured in the attack.
Two months ago another nine police officers were killed in an ambush in troubled Tana River.
The government for the past weeks has been engaging in talks with the two warring communities and issued an ultimatum to surrender stolen livestock to each other.
It was upon the elapsing of the government’s deadline that the government deployed police officers to pursue the bandits and recover stolen cattle.