More than 39 people, most of them women and children, were on Friday massacred in a dawn raid hours after elders from the Pokomo and Orma communities had sued for peace.
Tana Delta district commissioner David Kiprop said security officers were aware of the tension in the area, but the attack caught them unawares.
“I want to tell you that last night I received a mobile phone text message from a senior politician and leader of the other community, warning his people to be ready for an imminent attack. From today, the government is on hot pursuit of the person,” said Mr Kiprop.
The flare-up might force the judicial commission investigating past violence in Tana River to review its position, Lady Justice Grace Nzioka who is chairing the team told the Nation.
Deputy provincial police boss Robert Kitur told journalists that 11 men, six women, 13 children and nine of the aggressors were killed in the fighting at dawn in Kipao village.
Kipao village has nearly 3,500 residents and is arguably the biggest Orma settlement in the entire Tana County.
According to eyewitnesses, the fighting started shortly after Muslim morning prayers at 5.30am, with about 200 raiders armed with guns, bows and arrows and spears and machetes descending on the village.
They fired in the air, making the villagers to scamper for safety.
Mr Kitur said the attackers used guns, meaning disarmament should continue.
Twenty people sustained serious injuries in the morning attack, which also saw five houses burnt to the ground.
The injured were admitted to hospitals and health centres in Malindi, Tana River and the neighbouring Kilifi County.
Villagers later lynched a man suspected to have been among the raiders. Police had found the injured man in a bush.
Mr Kitur said police had identified the attackers — believed to be from the Pokomo community — and were searching for them.
“Those people who attacked the village are from within the locality and are well known to the residents. Police on the ground are doing all they can to apprehend them,” he said.
He appealed to the two communities, the Orma and the Pokomo, to coexist peacefully since they had lived harmoniously for years.
“These skirmishes must come to an end, but only if the two communities decide to live in peace regardless of their economic activities,”he said.
The Tana Delta was rocked by inter-ethnic clashes between the Orma and Pokomo in August and September this year over grazing and farming resources along River Tana.
Some politicians were accused of instigating the clashes in which more than 100 people died and many others injured.
The commission appointed by President Kibaki to unravel the cause of the conflict and suggest solutions is yet to finish its work.
The team toured the region and listened to testimonies of internally displaced people from the two communities, administrators and security agencies.
It is yet to compile its report because it has not taken statements from top government officials and politicians from the region.
Lady Justice Nzioka’s team is going through the evidence collected from more than 90 witnesses.
“Today’s attacks have taken us by surprise. We thought progress was being made but now we may have to review the position,” she said.
The commission may have to tour the area and gather more information in the wake of the latest attack, she told the Nation on phone.
President Kibaki condemned the killings and pledged to ensure perpetrators were arrested and punished.
He instructed security forces to move with speed and get to the bottom of the latest clashes.
Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka called for immediate stop to violence in the region.
He said the continued fighting over resources between the two groups was threatening peace and retarding development in the area.
Prime Minister Raila Odinga said the violence was “completely unacceptable.”
“The people of Tana River are Kenyans. They deserve the joy, hope and peace that are supposed to be the hallmark of the Christmas and New Year seasons,” he said in a statement.
Mr Odinga urged the security agencies and administrators to end the violence in Tana River.
Taken by surprise
“I appeal to our security to ensure that not an extra life is lost. It is time we all say enough is enough. This shameful, embarrassing chapter needs to close permanently,” he said.
At Kipao village, 21 Orma villagers killed in the violence were on Friday buried in accordance with Muslim tradition.
Drama earlier unfolded after angry villagers barred police officers from collecting the bodies.
The bodies lay in the sun the whole day, with Orma youth standing guard.
The contingent of GSU, Administration and Regular police had to watch from a distance as the Provincial Administration team led by County Commissioner Yusuf Rotich, Tana River peace operation commander Anthony Kamitu and Mr Kiprop held a security meeting at Hidaya Muslim School, about 150 metres away from the village.
“We want their fathers and relatives and not the police to come for the bodies,” said Mr Yusuf Ali, a villager.
Mr Rotich said the government was determined to end the clashes in the area. “But it largely depends on the communities living here for peace to be restored completely,” he said.
He accused some elders of refusing to give information to the police and government officials to enable them take action. Garsen MP Danson Mungatana said he was shocked by news of the fresh killings in the area.
“I wonder what has actually gone wrong,” the MP said in an interview on Friday.
The attacks cast a dark cloud over preparations for elections in the region as it could lead to more people moving to other safer areas.