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Blamuel Njururi Nairobi, May 17, 2014 – The US ambassador in Kenya Robert Godec has requested additional Kenyan and American security personnel for the embassy and its staff amid terrorist attacks in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi.
At the same time the US is reducing the size of the embassy staff because of an increase in terrorist threats in Kenya. The ambassador told embassy employees Friday to voluntary request leave from Kenya in a letter to staff.
The envoy said additional police are already patrolling around the embassy and that more assets will arrive from Washington in a week. The embassy warned Americans last week that it was taking new security measures because of recent threat information.
Apart from the US, Britain, France and Australia have also warned of terror threats in Nairobi and Mombasa. Britain has evacuated more than 360 of its nationals since last Thursday from Mombasa alone.
Militants from Al Shabaab in Somalia are blamed for an increasing number of attacks in Kenya but some of the attacks have been blamed on homegrown terrorism. Al-Qaida bombed the U.S. Embassy in Kenya in 1998, killing more than 200 people.
“Unfortunately, the security situation in Kenya, especially in Nairobi and Mombasa, continues to worsen. Since the tragic events of Westgate in September 2013, the number of attacks, threats, and warnings is deeply concerning,” Godec explained, referring to the assault on Westgate Mall by four Al Shabab gunmen that killed at least 67 people last November.
Since the Westgate attack, Godec’s letter said, there have been at least 12 explosions in Nairobi killing more than 20 people. The latest were the twin improvised explosive devices that exploded in busy Gikomba retail market, Nairobi on Friday, killing at least 12 people and wounding more than 90.
The U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, which was relocated after the 1998 embassy attack, sits far off the road and is surrounded by thick walls. Armed Marines have recently begun patrolling the grounds wearing bullet-proof vests and helmets. The frequencies of emergency drills that tell embassy personnel to “duck and cover” have also increased.
Nairobi hosts the largest U.S. diplomatic facility in East Africa with about 1,300 employees or more inside it on any given day. Godec said he is reducing the embassy’s “overall footprint” in Kenya by reducing the number of Americans stationed in Nairobi.
A former U.S. ambassador in Kenya, Scott Gration, said in a media interview Friday that embassies are a “magnet for people that have ideological tendencies,” and that they are a target whether a security warning has recently been posted or not.
Kenya has experienced a wave of increased attacks since sending its troops to Somalia to combat Al Shabaab in 2011. But opinion is divided on if the troops’ raid is the cause with some asking why such incidents are not reported in Ethiopia, Uganda or Burundi that have equally sent their personnel to Somalia.
There could be more than just that. It could be local issues and in particular politics. Recent intelligence reports have revealed that terrorists had planned attacks during the March General Elections but were thwarted by Tanzania and Kenyan government. They did not implicate any politicians.
Meanwhile, Britain on Saturday stepped up the evacuation of its citizens touring Kenya as with the government terming the decision unfair and harmful to the economy. More than 600 tourists left the Coast for the UK in two chartered planes on Friday as British tour firm Thomson Holidays informed its clients that all flights up to October 31 had been cancelled.
Kenya Tourism Federation vice-chairman Adam Jillo accused the US, UK, Australia and France of failing to consult them before making the decision to pull out their citizens.
Mr Jillo, who addressed a news conference in Nairobi, criticized the Kenyan government “for not doing enough” to reassure tourist markets that Kenya was a safe destination. He warned that the tourism sector would collapse if the government did not respond to the travel warnings, noting that the economy would lose more than Ksh5 billion and 500,000 jobs over the period of the cancellations.
“Tourist are now being airlifted out of Mombasa without any consultation with the private sector; we are greatly disappointed by this move,” said Mr Jillo, who urged the Government to consider increasing funding to the tourism sector to ensure its sustainability.
“All indications are that the travel warnings were based on security-related information. As citizens and investors in the sector, we are greatly disappointed in the Government’s inaction because they should be handling this and reassuring citizens, investors and our tourist source markets,” he added.
Federation chairman JS Vohra, said their members at the Coast had reported losing about 900 guests, who were all set to leave the country last night.
Thomson Holidays posted an alert on its website saying; “As a result of the change in Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice, the decision has been taken to cancel all our outbound flights to Mombasa.”
The alert explained that all the firm’s customers on holiday in Kenya, including air fare passengers would be flown back to the UK on Thursday and yesterday while all flights to the country before October 31 had been cancelled.
“We understand that many customers will be very disappointed about the cancellation of their holidays but in these types of situations we have to follow the FCO advice,” the notice said.
Australia also updated its travel advice, urging its citizens to reconsider their need to travel to Mombasa and Nairobi in the wake of recent terrorist attacks.
Britain warned its citizens against travelling to Mombasa, Eastleigh in Nairobi and areas within 60 kilometres of the Kenya–Somalia border unless travel was essential and unavoidable.
The top five tourist source markets for Kenya are UK with 149,699 arrivals, US with 115,636, Italy with 79,993 and India and Germany at 64,887 and 60,450 respectively according to the tourism performance results in 2013.
Mombasa County Commissioner Nelson Marwa sought to assure Kenyans and foreigners that Mombasa was a safe destination contrary to the warnings and that security had been beefed up in hotels, ferries, airports, supermarkets and entertainment spots.
Mr. Marwa said activities at the Moi International Airport were normal. “There is peace in Mombasa and foreigners should continue with their normal business without being frightened.” Moi International Airport, Area Manager Yatich Kangugo said the airport was secure.
According to the BBC, the warning against non-essential travel covered Mombasa Island, Kiwayu and coastal areas north of Pate Island, the Garissa district, Eastleigh, the slums of Nairobi and areas within 60km of the Kenya-Somalia border.
The advice did not include the Diani beach resort or Moi International Airport. British tourists expressed disappointment at the abrupt interruption of their holiday at the South Coast. Some of them had only been in the country for three days and were yet to tour national parks and heritage sites.
Mr Stefan Arlow, who was vacationing at Amani Tiwi, said he was informed that tourists were to quickly leave the country and return home and that he flew back home against his wish. “I am disappointed to be told that I should be evacuated yet I was to relax after working and saving for the holiday,” he said while waiting to board his flight.
Mr Gary Roberts said he “was gutted” by the requirement to go back to England after “a short time on holiday in a beautiful country.” He said: “I am angry that I have to return home prematurely without completing my holiday.”
A disappointed Sheila Simon said: “I had to obey the directive to go home but this decision is not good for me.”