NAIROBI, Kenya – Kenya's government will conduct a countrywide operation to disarm all communities with illegal weapons, it announced Thursday, a day after at least 52 people were killed in southeast Kenya when hundreds of farmers attacked cattle herders.
In addition to the dead, the Kenya Red Cross said that at least 50 people are missing from the attack by Pokomo tribe farmers on the Orma people, who are largely semi-nomadic livestock herders.
Witnesses said some Pokomo were armed with guns and shot the Orma. Other Orma people were burned to death in their houses, while others were hacked to death or shot with arrows, and livestock stolen in the dawn attack on Wednesday, said the witnesses. Eleven children were among those who died, officials said.
The missing may have drowned or were burned to ashes during the attack at Riketa village in Tana River district, said Sadik Kakai, head of disaster operations for the Kenya Red Cross.
The government disarmament will reinforce security in affected areas, said acting Internal Security Minister Yusuf Haji.
"The government will conduct an operation to disarm all communities illegally armed in the country and ensure security in the affected areas," he said. However he declined to say when the exercise would begin and how long it would take.
Police Commissioner Mathew Iteere led a high level delegation to Tana River district to boost security in the region and prevent retaliation between the two groups.
Wednesday's attack was retaliation for the killing of two Pokomo farmers last week, said officials. The conflict started with accusations that the Orma graze their livestock on Pokomo farms.
The Tana River area is about 430 miles (690 kilometers) from the capital. Kakai says at least 700 people were displaced from their homes by the attack and urgently need aid.
The utilization of the waters of the Tana River has been in the middle of a conflict pitting the Pokomo against the Orma, according to research by the Institute of Security Studies in 2004, following clashes in the Tana River area in 2000 to 2002. The Pokomo claim the land along the river and the Orma claim the waters of the river, said the research by Taya Weiss, titled "Guns in the Borderlands Reducing the Demand for Small Arms." At least 108 people died in the 2000-2002 clashes, according to the parliamentary record.
The longstanding conflict between the two tribes had previously resulted in relatively low casualties but the increased availability of guns has caused the casualties to escalate and more property to be destroyed, said the report.
It said a catalyst to the recent conflict was the collapse of three irrigation schemes at Bura, Hola, and Tana Delta, which influenced residents' lifestyles in terms of employment and sources of income.
"The collapse of these schemes forced the nomadic pastoralists to move during the wet season, while the farmers remained along the river. During the dry season the pastoralists move back to the river in search of water and pasture," it said.
The Tana River area has the characteristics of any other conflict prone area in Kenya: underdevelopment, poor infrastructure, poor communication and social amenities, and social marginalization, according to the report.
"Communities are arming themselves because of the need to defend against perceived attacks," said the report. "They feel that the government security machinery has not been able to effectively respond to violence. Isolation has led to increased demand for guns."