Political tensions and anger over worsening insecurity mounted in Kenya on Wednesday in the wake of twin massacres on the coast, claimed by Somalia's Islamist Shebab but blamed by the president on local political networks.
The assault on the town of Mpeketoni late on Sunday and a nearby village the following night left at least 60 dead, and were the worst attacks since last September's Shebab attack on the Westgate shopping mall in the capital in which 67 were killed.
Despite an immediate claim of responsibility for the latest carnage from the al-Qaeda-linked Shebab, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta instead blamed “local political networks” along with an “opportunist network of other criminal gangs”.
The charges have been greeted by scepticism and confusion - but are also seen as raising the spectre of fresh ethnic violence inside Kenya.
“The emerging scenario points to a dangerous political situation that could easily escalate to violence if not well managed,” the Daily Nation newspaper said in an editorial.
Although no names were mentioned, Kenyan media said it was clear Kenyatta was accusing opposition leader Raila Odinga, a former prime minister and Kenyatta's main rival.
“The president was pointing the finger directly, even without mentioning names, at opposition leader Raila Odinga who... has led a series of high-profile political rallies to press demands for a national conference on problems afflicting Kenya,” the paper said.
The Star newspaper also said “the political temperature in Kenya has risen to dangerous levels”, and called for Kenyatta and Odinga to meet.
“This extremism is leading Kenya to disaster, neither side appears willing to back down,” it added.
Bitter memories are still fresh in Kenya six years since contested 2007 elections escalated into ethnic conflict in which over 1 200 people were killed, violence for which Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto face crimes against humanity charges at the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Odinga, who lost out in the 2007 elections and again in 2013 to Kenyatta, earlier this month vowed mass protests against the government, with the next on July 7, the anniversary of protests for multiparty democracy in the 1990s against the iron-grip rule of then President Daniel arap Moi.
Moses Wetangula, the parliamentary leader of Odinga's Coalition for Reform and Democracy (CORD), told AFP he feared the government were “scapegoating instead of taking action over a serious issue” - the ongoing threat of attacks from militants across the border in Somalia.
Tensions are already high between the supporters of the key parties, where loyalty is largely based on ethnic lines.
Earlier comments by Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku on Monday, in which he criticised “destructive politics and ethnic profiling”, swiftly sparked riots in Nairobi, as youths supporting the government blocked roads with burning tyres in an anti-opposition protest.
“Instead of forging a united front to take the war to the criminals, Kenyans, especially on social media, have taken on each other,” The Standard newspaper warned.
On social media, rivals are exchanging “vitriolic attacks laced with ethnic venom and threats to violence”, The Nation said.
Muslim leaders have also warned they fear the conflict seen in 2007-2008 could return, the country's worst wave of violence since independence in 1963.
The situation is “a recipe for sectarian and ethnic violence which might be a repeat of the tragic events of 2007,” said Sheikh Mohammad Khalifa, of the Council of Imams and Preachers.
“Kenya cannot afford action that might be seen as the outcome of rumours and political propaganda, or actions designed merely to muzzle the legitimate opposition and all alternative voices,” the Daily Nation editorial warned.
Shebab insurgents have claimed - and carried out - deadly attacks on Kenyan soil in the past, and survivors of the coastal attacks reported gunmen speaking Somali and carrying Shebab flags, executing non-Muslims in what they said was revenge for Kenya's military offensives in Somalia.
Kenya also has its own homegrown Islamist militants, as well as a coastal separatist group, the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), but the tactics and extreme violence seen during recent attacks are unprecedented on Kenyan soil.
“It seems associating these killings with politics was the easy option,” The Standard newspaper said. - Sapa-AFP