By Bosire Boniface in Garissa
Security forces stormed the mosque complex late Sunday in response to what they said was an organised effort to recruit and train youths in jihadist activities, Mombasa County Police Commander Robert Kitur told Sabahi.
Of the three killed in the incident, one was police officer who succumbed to knife wounds, he said, adding that 200 people were arrested in the confrontation.
A court on Monday ordered that 129 people arrested in the operation, including three women, be held until February 7th to give police time to complete investigations, Kitur said.
As the security forces made their way to the mosque, they were met by youths armed with guns, machetes, swords and batons, refusing to let them enter compound, according to Kitur. He said security forces stormed the mosque after the youths defied orders to surrender and fired gunshots at the security officers.
"We confiscated knives, banners and flags associated with al-Shabaab. Police had to climb the minarets to bring down the hoisted flags," Kitur said, adding that it took security forces more than five hours to clear the four-storey mosque complex.
"We got wind of the meeting on Thursday [January 30th] through a tip off from the public. The meeting was also publicised through leaflets and social media," he said. "We had issued a warning that we will not allow such a meeting because it was illegal."
Coast region police Chief Aggrey Adoli said security forces were keen to quickly end the standoff in order to bring normalcy to the town.
He said security forces were on alert in case the meeting and subsequent security attention were a ploy to distract security forces from al-Shabaab terror attacks elsewhere.
"The radicalisation meeting had been ongoing since morning. We are also investigating that a meeting also took place on Friday," he told Sabahi. "We believe the youths wanted to create a standoff situation to last for hours or days or even months to create attention. The youths defied security forces order to unconditionally abandon the meeting and disperse."
Police wanted to peacefully disperse the meeting, and to prevent casualties and damages to the holy site, he said.
Adoli said security officials are planning to hold a meeting with Muslim clerics in the region to discuss the ongoing situation. Part of the agenda for the meeting would be to discuss the possible closure of Masjid Mussa because of its use by youths and radical clerics to brew trouble in the country, he said.
"We believe the radical group is using the mosque in a bid to attract forceful security responses which in turn attract a backlash against the security forces," he said.
In response to the possible mosque shutdown, Mombasa County Senator Hassan Omar Hassan said Sunday via Facebook, "I sincerely hope that such reports are untrue as no government can harbour an intent of such extreme transgression against any faith. It will be an act of provocation which I strongly oppose."
"I urge all leaders and the wider formation of our Mombasa citizen to engage our best efforts to find a solution to these issues," he said, adding that the solution "must be founded on engagement and dialogue".
Masjid Mussa is reputed for spreading radicalism and is known to be frequented by supporters of the late Aboud Rogo Mohammed who was killed in a drive-by shooting in August 2012, an event that sparked days of rioting in Mombasa.
Rogo and his successors often used the mosque as a venue to make speeches, sermons and lectures on the virtues of jihad.
Mosque storming triggers resentmentAbdi Mwashumbe, 34, a Mombasa resident, said he was inside the mosque when the confrontation between the youths and the security forces began.
He said tension started building when police officers used loud speakers to order the congregation to exit the mosque with their hands in the air.
Those orders were followed with a group of youths inside the mosque chanting religious slogans, he said.
"Some of the congregation was unaware that a radicalisation meeting was going on in the complex," Mwashumbe told Sabahi. "Those of us who were not aware of anything wanted to heed the police orders and get out, but some youths inside dared us to leave."
"It felt like a hostage situation because we were being used as a shield," he said, adding that after about two hours he was able to "casually stroll and sneak out of the mosque".
Mwashumbe said that at around 3 pm, after he had escaped, he heard gunshots and teargas being fired.
"I just hope the police will thoroughly interview those who have been arrested because some are innocent," he said.
Sheikh Abdallah Kheir, an imam and lecturer of sociology at Kenyatta University, condemned the use of force at the mosque.
He said the meeting at the mosque had been published as a religious lecture and the police had no reason to disrupt it.
"A mosque is holy place, but the police entered the mosque with their shoes and opened gunfire and teargas on those inside," he told Sabahi.
According to police sources, officers only fired their weapons outside the mosque.
Kheir said the government should address radicalisation by providing opportunities for youths.
"Many youths are idle and vulnerable to ideologists who sway their mind. The government also needs to address historical injustices and marginalisation of the youths in Coast region," he said.