Masked gunmen killed 17 people and wounded dozens in gun and grenade attacks on two churches on Sunday in the Kenyan town of Garissa near the border with Somalia, officials said.
As Kenya vowed not to be deterred, Washington extended its support to the east African nation and the Vatican expressed concern that attacks on Christian worshippers were spreading.
Wearing balaclavas, the attackers killed two armed police — posted outside churches following previous attacks — before bursting inside to target worshippers as they held prayer services.
Witnesses said bodies lay -scattered on the floor inside the blood spattered buildings — a Roman Catholic church and an Africa Inland Church.
“It is a terrible scene, you can see bodies lying in the churches,” regional police chief Leo Nyongesa said.
At least 40 people were rushed to hospital, several in a critical condition, the Kenyan Red Cross said.
The Red Cross, which put the death toll at 17, flew the three most critically injured victims by air ambulance to the capital Nairobi.
Three children were reported to be among the dead.
“It is a horrible sight to see,” said Hussein Abdi, a resident of Garissa, a garrison town populated mainly by Muslim ethnic Somalians and located about 140km from the border.
Condemning the attacks as a “horrible and very worrying act,” the Vatican deplored that “among terrorist groups, attacks on Christians gathered on Sunday in their place of worship has become a method, believed to be particularly efficient, of spreading hatred and fear,” spokesman Federico Lombardi said.
Nigeria has suffered a string of almost weekly attacks on church services in recent months in which dozens of faithful have been killed.
“The perpetrators of these attacks have shown no respect for human life and dignity, and must be brought to justice for these heinous acts,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
Canada also condemned the “vicious and cowardly” church attacks.
Kenya has suffered a spate of gun, grenade and bomb attacks since sending troops into southern Somalia in October last year to target al-Shabaab rebels fighting to overthrow the weak UN backed government in the Horn of Africa state.
Later, the pro-Shabaab Twitter site al-Kataib boasted of a “successful operation in Garissa,” but did not specifically claim responsibility. Nairobi has blamed previous assaults on the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab militants.
Kenyan Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka said on Sunday that the nation “will not be intimidated by such cowardly acts” and urged Kenyans to “exercise religious tolerance.”
The Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims condemned the attacks, saying that “all places of worship must be respected.”
“We want to send our condolences and we are sad that no arrests have been made yet,” council chairman Abdulghafur El-Busaidy said.
Police said up to seven men had carried out the attacks, which came two days after a gunman killed a Kenyan driver and abducted four foreign aid workers from the Dadaab refugee camp, about 80km to the northeast.
Last week a grenade blast in a bar in Kenya’s main port of Mombasa killed three people, a day after the US embassy warned of the threat of attack.