Slow progress in Kenya investigation shows difficulties facing police force

MOMBASA, Kenya -- A day after simultaneous terror attacks against Israeli targets in Kenya, the country's police commissioner touted the arrest of about a dozen foreigners, calling it a breakthrough in the case.

On Saturday, the country's internal security and defense minister boasted the Kenyan police would crack the case.

"The Kenya police are running this investigation," Julius Sunkuli said. "The Kenya police do a lot of investigating every day, and the Kenya police do have the know-how and resources to be able to unravel the crime."

But on the same day, two foreigners -- an American woman and her husband -- were released and police had yet to link the others to Thursday's attacks against an Israeli-owned airliner and resort hotel that killed 16 people, including three suicide bombers.

The investigation's lack of significant progress so far highlights the problems still facing Kenyan police four years after a deadly truck bomb at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi revealed the nation's porous borders and weak security and law enforcement systems.

The attacks this week that killed 10 Kenyans, three Israelis and the three unidentified bombers have again pushed Kenyan police into an investigation they may not be prepared to handle.

There has been some improvement in the East African nation's police force in recent years, mainly because of training programs offered by the United States and Israel after the Aug. 7, 1998, embassy bombing claimed by Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network killed 219 people and injured 5,000.

But the lack of infrastructure and equipment, compounded by low morale, poor salaries and pervasive corruption, makes it hard for Kenyan police to screen for possible terrorists or investigate attacks.

Sunkuli, while defending the abilities of Kenyan police, was quick to add Saturday that his country does not have the advanced technical resources of the Americans and Israelis, and welcomed all assistance.

Two shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles were launched against an Israeli charter jet leaving Mombasa airport, narrowly missing the Arika Airlines Boeing 757 with 261 passengers and 10 crew members. It landed safely in Tel Aviv, Israel, with no casualties.

A few minutes later, a vehicle packed with explosives broke through the gate at the oceanside Paradise Hotel. One attacker ran into the lobby and blew himself up, while two others exploded the vehicle.

Police have found the registration plate for the vehicle used in the suicide attack, but it is unclear who its owners are. There has been no progress tracing the vehicle used in the missile attack, although Kenyan officials believe it still is in the country.

"I'm happy with the way the investigation is going," Sunkuli said. "We are really trying to work hard to get more clues about the other car (that carried the missiles) because we don't think it has left Kenya."

A few plainclothes Israeli investigators have been busy at the ruins of the Paradise Hotel, occasionally working in tandem with Kenyan police. But the words in black letters on the red tape used to cordon off the crime site are in Hebrew. U.S. security officials also were taking part.

As in nearly all African nations, the police in Kenya primarily have been an instrument of political control and repression. In 1998, Kenya waived all rights to the four embassy bombing suspects who lived here. They were tried, convicted and sentenced to life in prison in a U.S. court.

Despite Sunkuli's claims, very few major crimes -- from multimillion-dollar banking scams to high-profile killings -- are solved. Criminal suspects often are shot and killed by police "in hot pursuit."

The United Nations downgraded its Nairobi posting because of worsening crime and crumbling services, causing the police budget to increase from $6 million to $41 million.

On Friday, Police Commissioner Philemon Abong'o touted the detention of several Pakistanis and Somalis on a boat in Mombasa harbor as a breakthrough.

But Mir Mohammed, a Pakistani in his 40s who was left by police to watch the 50-foot wooden vessel, said he and his five Pakistani and three Somali colleagues just were fishing for sharks off the Horn of Africa.

Neighboring Somalia has been cited by U.S. officials as a possible haven for terrorists, and weapons and passports are readily available there.

Mohammed said the boat put into Mombasa harbor Nov. 23 for repairs. Immigration officials seized the crewmen's passports -- all issued in Somalia -- and told them to remain there, he said. Police then returned to pick up Mohammed's colleagues several hours after Thursday's attacks.

"We were looking for some food, we were just trying to make a living to feed our families," Mohammed said.

It was not immediately possible to contact police officials to corroborate Mohammed's story, which he told in Urdu through an interpreter.


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