Gunmen have kidnapped an Italian voluntary worker and wounded five others, including young children, as they opened fire in Kenya’s southeast coastal region of Kilifi, police said.
The unidentified attackers, armed with assault rifles, fired indiscriminately at residents at about 8pm (17:00 GMT) on Tuesday in the Chakama trading centre in Kilifi county, about 80km west of Malindi town, the National Police Service said on Twitter.
“The gang … abducted an Italian lady aged 23 years who is a volunteer with Africa Milele Onlus, an NGO operating in the area,” it posted on Wednesday.
The wounded included a 10-year-old who was shot in the eye and a 12-year-old who was hit in the thigh, police said. They were all taken to a hospital, with one in serious condition.
The kidnapped woman has been identified as Sylvia Constanza Romano, who was working for the small Italian charity, according to her organisation and Kenya’s police chief, Joseph Boinnet.
The National Police Service wishes to inform the public that last evening at about 8pm, a gang of men armed with AK 47 rifles attacked Chakama Trading centre in Chakama, Makongeni sub location in Kilifi county, about 80 kilometres west of Malindi town. 1/6
— National Police Service-Kenya (@NPSOfficial_KE) November 21, 2018
The motive for the attack is not yet clear, police said, as officers were pursuing the attackers.
“We assure the public that we are sparing no effort in tracking down the criminals and rescue the victim,” the National Police Service said.
Two witnesses told Reuters news agency they heard the gunmen speaking Somali.
The attackers came looking for a white woman, according to Ronald Kazungu Ngala, 19, who said he witnessed Romano’s violent kidnapping.
Ngala’s high school education is being sponsored by Africa Milele Onlus and he had gone to the NGO’s offices to present his grade 10 end-of-year report card to Romano, he told the Associated Press news agency.
He first heard gunfire, which made all the shops close and people in the trading centre hide.
At about 7:30pm, six men, some armed with guns and others with machetes and clubs, stormed into the charity offices and demanded to know where the “mgeni” (Swahili for visitor) was.
“I told them she had left to go and get a power bank but they didn’t believe me and surged into the room where they found her,” he said.
Ngala said he followed them and heard one gunman ask the other if she is the one and when he was answered in the affirmative, he proceeded to “slap her very hard until she fell.”
Ngala said the gunmen took Romano across the Galana River.
Italian NGO Africa Milele Onlus said there are “no words to comment on what is happening”.
“Sylvia, we are all with you,” it wrote on its website.
Suspected members of al-Shabab, an armed group based in neighbouring Somalia, have launched several attacks in recent months in which Kenyan soldiers have been killed. But all those attacks have taken place in Lamu County, which is north of Kilifi and borders Somalia.
“We cannot rule out their [al-Shabab] involvement, but we are investigating,” a senior police officer told Kenya’s Capital FM News.
The armed group was also responsible for the 2013 attack on a shopping mall in the capital, Nairobi, in which nearly 70 people were killed.
Somalia-based fighters have been blamed in the past for a spate of kidnappings of foreigners along Kenya’s coast.
Kenya said it was prompted to send troops to Somalia in 2011 to fight al-Shabab after the kidnappings of four foreigners.
One of the foreigners, a cancer-stricken quadriplegic Frenchwoman kidnapped off a Kenyan resort island, died in captivity in Somalia.
Al-Shabab has since carried out numerous attacks in Kenya, saying it is vengeance for the country’s troop presence in Somalia.