NAIROBI, Kenya – Hundreds of people fearing a government backlash over the killing of at least 32 police officers are fleeing their homes in northwestern Kenya as the military prepares to help police pursue the bandits who carried out the attack, officials said Tuesday.
Police Commissioner Mathew Iteere said a "serious" operation has begun to find those responsible for the deaths of the officers over the weekend.
"We cannot allow such things to happen. I think they were testing the waters and in due cause they will know the depth of the river," he said.
The National Security Council chaired by President Mwai Kibaki said the military will provide support to Kenya Police Service in apprehending the bandits and recovering stolen animals and arms in Samburu county.
Residents in Baragoi, the main town in Samburu North district, said there was massive build-up of police officers in the town.
The police were killed over the weekend after being ambushed by bandits from the Turkana tribe who are suspected of having stolen cattle from the Samburu tribe.
Samuel Letipila, a council representative in the affected area, said the bodies of 34 police officers and reserves had been recovered. Iteere put the confirmed death toll at 32 with several officers missing.
Letipila said he lost 112 cattle in mid-October when the Turkana raiders stole more than 500 of them. Twelve Samburu warriors were killed on Oct. 30 when they attempted to recover their animals from the Turkana. Those killings led to last weekend's police operation, he said.
Francis Karimi, a local government official in Baragoi, said nearly 1,500 members of the Turkana community have fled from Lemerok village fearing the upcoming government operation. Karimi said residents were seen leaving in buses with their mattresses and boxes of household goods.
"They are afraid," Karimi said.
Suguta Valley, the region where the killngs took place, is far removed from modern society. Roads and communications are bad, and few security officers are stationed there.
Security officials operating around the valley area say it is the perfect hideout for bandits because it gives them a fort-like defensive position and the rugged terrain works to their advantage.
Peter Lekeren, a Kenya wildlife Service warden in the area, described Suguta Valley as "one way in and one way out, and high elevation on either side of entrance and exit."
"If the bandit gets to the valley before those pursuing them, it becomes impossible to capture them. They climb on the hill and mow down anybody attempting go through the entrance of valley," he said.
Eric Kiraithe, Kenya's police spokesman, said on Monday the bandits had the high ground against the police, resulting in the many deaths.
Lekeren said temperatures in the valley can get to 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) and be unbearable for those who are not accustomed to it. He said the bandits are usually armed with automatic rifles.
Cattle rustling among the Samburu, Turkana, Pokot and Markwet tribes — pastoral communities — is a traditional practice associated with coming-of-age rituals and is meant to replenish a community's stock of livestock after droughts and famine.
But the introduction of guns into a practice once dominated by spears and arrows has led to higher death tolls. The guns are smuggled through Kenya's porous borders with Somalia and South Sudan.
A 2010 report by Kenya Human Rights Commission said that in the last 30 years the motive behind cattle-rustling and its modus operandi has significantly changed. The traditional practice has been increasingly replaced by the criminal activities of livestock theft, the report said.
It said marginalization of the pastoral communities has led to the underdevelopment and higher poverty levels in these regions, which has in turn resulted in higher levels of insecurity.
The weekend slaughter — and the high-powered guns the tribesmen used in the attack — raise concerns that Kenyan officials will not be able to stop violence during the country's next presidential election in March.
Kenya police struggled to contain violence that broke out following the dispute over who had won presidential election in late 2007. More than 1,000 people died and 600,000 were left homeless in the ensuing violence.
A 2008 government report said one of the reasons violence flared was the lack of trust in public institutions, including police, accused of taking sides in the conflict. Kenya is currently attempting to reform its police forces partly to ensure that violence does not occur during the March elections.